If there’s one reason to tune into American Idol this season, it’s Harry Connick, Jr.
Now if you go back a year in my blog, you’ll see that I opened with the exact same line in the post, “Why Nicki Minaj Is American Idol’s Saving Grace“; just substitute in this year’s crooner king for last season’s rap queen. But boy oh boy, was I wrong.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty and Nicki Minaj’s dynamic charisma soon wore thin. All the asinine cat-fighting between her and fellow judge Mariah Carey became tiresome quickly and quite frankly, Nicki’s fervent over-the-top passion sometimes came off as abrasive. The discordant judging panel was a huge turn-off for many of Idol‘s core viewers, resulting in its lowest-rated finale ever. But the two divas are both gone this year, along with Randy “Obnoxiously Useless” Jackson (phew, FINALLY!). In their place are returning judges Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban and newcomer Harry Connick, Jr.
I came upon this season with an overwhelming sense of dread, knowing that I would have to slog through hours upon hours of the same, tiresome auditions. But you know what? It’s been surprisingly good. And fun (a word I’ve never used to describe this show). It’s definitely been a huge shock to my jaded viewing routine.
Thank the Idol gods for the entertaining, knowledgeable, and extremely charming Harry Connick, Jr. We’ve only seen him in the audition room thus far, but Harry is quite possibly the best judge in the franchise’s thirteen years.
As a jazz musician who has also paid his dues on Broadway, Harry has brought an invigorating perspective to the show. He single-handedly attempts to correct what singing competitions have thrived on since the beginning: over-singing. “Some people on this panel are very easily impressed by licks,” he tells one auditioner, dropping a not-so-subtle hint that it sure isn’t him. He tells Quaid Edwards, another attractive hopeful with a decent voice:
Yeah, bro. You’re cute. The girls are gonna scream. I promise you, you sing your first run: ‘Oh my god, he can really sing.’ But if you want to be a great singer who changes the game, you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Not since Simon Cowell have we seen critiques of the “that was good, but not good enough” variety. But unlike the harsh Brit, Harry’s charisma deflects any meanness in his honesty. And as a result, Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban have really stepped up their own judging game, delivering pointed criticisms of their own. No longer a cheerleading panel, it’s refreshing to see the judges disagree with each other.
Gone are thirteen years of Randy Jackson’s signature misnomer: “pitchy.” Harry flat-out nixes the word from the judging panel. “It’s called singing off-pitch,” he remarks. In its place are insightful constructive criticism and musical knowledge not seen from a judge outside of The Sing-Off‘s Ben Folds. Unimpressed with one melismatic singer, he tells her, “I’m not as taken by the smoke and mirrors of pentatonics.” J.Lo expresses confusion at the term and after the audition, Harry explains her, and to America, the basics of a penatonic scale:
What’s wrong with challenging America? Here it is: there are twelve notes. You know you have do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. There’s also di, ri, fi, si, li. Pentatonics are the classic go-tos for R&B singers, gospel singers, jazz musicians. Those are the five notes that you hear everybody do the runs on.
How cool is it to see actual music theory on a show about singing? Well Harry Connick, Jr. makes it even cooler. And this delightfully discerning and attentive judge knows the difference between real singers and people imitating what they hear on the radio. During one audition, he calls out 16-year-old Johnny Newcomb for being derivative:
When Eddie Vedder sings, that really is Eddie Vedder. I just don’t believe that’s your voice. I think you’re highly impressionable because of your age; you have to be. I think you’re doing the right thing. You’re emulating your heroes, but I think it’s a little premature for you to be an American Idol right now.
This is a new era of American Idol. We have thankfully moved past the sob stories, the humiliations, and cynicism of years past and are now focusing on the actual talent. The judges treat contestants with care and dignity. Now, more than ever, they’re focused on fostering the talent of real people with real dreams. J.Lo tells us in an interview package, “It’s not about gimmicks. You’ve just gotta get up there and sing and touch America.” In fact, we breeze through these auditions, baring witness to more Golden Ticket auditions than ever. So many good people are shown that it’s hard to keep track of them all. And that’s not the worst problem to have.
“I think people like watching American Idol because you never know what you’re gonna get,” Keith remarks. And this is true, especially with Harry on the panel. He is the life of the party and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself. Whether jokingly admitting to being Chris Issak, literally standing next to a contestant singing “Stand By Me,” or making fun of J.Lo for never flying coach like “the rest of us,” Harry is quite the self-effacing entertainer.
No other audition sums up what Harry has added to the panel than the final audition in the premiere episode. After an amusing segment where people struggle to identify
Tony Harry Connick, Jr. (“He’s white, but he sounds black,” explains one mother), we meet Munfarid Zandi, a 19-year-old who reads Harry’s Wikipedia page every night before he goes to sleep. Harry promises him, “If you blow us away on the first song, I’d like to pick you up and hold you like a baby on the second.” True to his word, after an excellent rendition of an Adele ballad, Harry leaves the panel to cradle Munfarid in his arms. It is a magnificent sight to behold.
Outside the audition room, a dumbfounded Ryan Seacrest asks Munfarid, “Why was he cradling you?” Munfarid responds wistfully, “Because I love him.”
So do I. And so does America. With Harry Connick, Jr. at the helm, we’re in good hands. And strong arms.