Who Should Win American Idol 2018?

I called this season’s American Idol Top 14 the strongest field of competitors in years, just a month ago, but on the dawn of finale night, it seems I may have spoken too soon. This isn’t all the contestants’ fault, necessarily. This extremely truncated season robbed these singers the opportunity to develop into more mature artists, comfortable on the Idol stage. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to witness singers’ transformations, from aspiring auditioners, to bona fide stars. But now, growth arcs are gone, and we’ve barely gotten to know these kids.

We’re left with three (blonde, white) performers who still have so much room to improve. We have Caleb Lee Hutchinson, the blandest of bland country guys, Maddie Poppe, an acoustic singer-songwriter with cool musical taste, and country queen Gabby Barrett, whom Vulture’s Louis Virtel affectionately called “Very Underwood.”

My American Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, has joined me to share who should win this 16th season of Idol and our favorite performance of the season.

Jonathan Amores on Who Should Win: Maddie Poppe

Maddie Poppe has such an excellent gift: She is able to uncover the soul of a song and imbue a performance with genuine emotion and moving vulnerability. She has delivered the most consistently delightful performances, leaning into her crystal-clear vocals and multi-instrumented abilities. It’s as if each week, she reveals a new song from her personal concert set-list full of eclectic song choices from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”

Speaking of song choice, I think Maddie deserves the crown based on one night alone. Top 10 Night was Disney night and I was hoping that these contestants would pick bold, out-of-the-box songs, like “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” or “When She Loved Me.” Instead, we sat through expectedly banal performances of “The Circle of Life” and “Colors of the Wind.” Maddie, however, stood out with a ukulele-fied “Bare Necessities.” For that audacious song choice alone, Maddie Poppe should win American Idol.

I think that Gabby will actually win the season, and I wouldn’t be upset if that happened. She would be a worthy winner and I’m sure ABC would be thrilled with an Underwood-lite champion. Just as long as it’s not yet another White Guy With Guitar winner.

Jonathan Yu, On Who Should Win: Gabby Barrett

The odds are supposedly in her favor to become just the 6th woman to win American Idol in 16 seasons, and for good reason. This girl can SANG. She already commands the stage like a seasoned performer with incredible control over her voice. Her repertoire of audition songs maybe seem to overlap entirely with Carrie Underwood’s discography, but I actually think that the combination of nasal and grit in her voice is more effective on songs that lean more soulful – her rendition of “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin from Hollywood Week is probably my favorite bit of singing from the entire competition.

Here’s to hoping that she pulls out a showstopper performance this week, more in the veins of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” than “I Hope You Dance.” To be honest, though, I will be almost just as happy if Maddie “Consistent” Poppe gets the crown. Just please, dear God, not Caleb.

Jonathan Amores, On His Favorite Performance: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me”

When recalling this season’s performances, a handful have stood out. In terms of pure vocals, I’d choose Jurnee’s gorgeous Showcase performance of “Never Enough.” For sheer joy and surprise, I’d choose Michael J. Woodard’s “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. Instead, I chose a performance that embodies this new era of Disneyfied American Idol: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from Coco.

Michelle was far from the best vocalist, but she had the strongest stage presence. She knew how to work a room, electrify an audience, and perform. The judges continually urged Michelle to sing in both English and Spanish (Michelle is originally from Venezuela), and in this performance, she delivers in spades. There’s so much joy in this performance and she lights up the stage from the first note, sprinkling in just the right amount of theatrics. Michelle had a rough run on Idol, but she left the competition on a high note.

Jonathan Yu, On His Favorite Performance: Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good”

There were many performances that I considered picking for my favorite performance of the season – Jurnee’s “Never Enough,” Dennis Lorenzo’s “This Woman’s Work,” or Michael J. Woodard’s “Beauty and the Beast” come to mind, but in the end, I decided to pick Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good.” She may have peaked a bit early with this performance, but it will forever be one of the most important performances on Idol ever for me.

I thought I had seen it all with Idol, but a drag queen crushing her competition unapologetically in a semifinals round, bringing Katy Perry literally to her knees, still brought a tear to my eyes. The song fit her over-the-top vocals (that range!!) and persona (that braid!!) perfectly. Even if she never quite lived up to expectations the rest of the season, I am still thankful that Idol gave a platform for a performer such as her. ❤


How Survivor is Outwitting, Outplaying, and Outlasting American Idol

“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”

Survivor’s motto has been part of our pop culture lexicon for nearly 14 years. The long-running reality competition is now in its 28th iteration, with at least two more on the way. Survivor airs head-to-head on Wednesdays at 8pm with another reality TV titan, American Idol, now in its 13th year.

In this battle of the time slot, the two shows occupy opposite sides of the entertainment spectrum. Survivor is firing on all cylinders, delivering what could be its best season with Survivor: Cagayan, while American Idol is a train-wreck and a snooze-fest all at once.

How has Survivor managed to outwit, outplay, and outlast American Idol? Let’s break it down.

Survivor has dynamic characters…

This season, the Survivor producers divided its 18 castaways into three tribes, each tribe embodying an aspect of the game used to win: Brains, Brawn, and Beauty. But it doesn’t matter how many twists producers can throw out there, if there isn’t an engaging cast of characters maneuvering those obstacles, the show suffers (I’m looking at you, One World cast!).


Tony Vlachos

Luckily, the Survivor gods have bestowed upon us a casting bounty with Cagayan. We have everything from larger-than-life personalities, to sympathetic underdogs to root for, to hotheads, to boneheaded decision-makers.

Cagayan‘s standout character is Tony Vlachos. Tony. Tony. Tony. He is a mad scientist, constantly scheming new ways to best his opponents, and even his allies. He is a shark. He needs to keep making big moves or else he’ll die. “I like big moves, bro,” he admits. Tony’s gameplay compares to the infamous Russell Hantz, but unlike that Survivor troll, Tony’s gameplay never devolves into spiteful personal attacks. Tony is a master of deception and his childish glee exudes from every pore. While he’s far from the perfect player (see: the “Top five, baby!” slip that came back to haunt him), Tony is above all, damn entertaining to watch.

It wouldn’t be Survivor without underdogs, and Cagayan has them in spades with Spencer Bledsoe and Tasha Fox. These two survived a near-decimation of the Brains tribe and survived their former Brains ally, the emotionally charged Kass #ChaosKass McQuillen, flipping on them and their majority alliance.

Spencer is making the right measured moves at the right measured times. He maximizes his opportunities and shows a great deal of patience in his execution. Who didn’t cheer when he found the hidden immunity idol during the #MadTreasureHunt? Tasha’s social connections and physical prowess makes her a threat to win, even if she does get #StoodUp by the charming and rugged LJ McKanas. Their strategic wheels are always turning and make it easy to root for them.

Are you ready for an #UnpopularOpinion? My favorite castaway this season is Trish Hegarty. Let’s be real. Trish is playing a cunning game. She finds her targets and she executes accordingly. She engineered Cliff Robinson’s ouster behind her fellow Brawns’ backs and she slyly convinced #ChaosKass to flip, even after Tony patronized her and told her not to. You could even argue that she pushed Lindsey Ogle out of the game. As an astute social observer, Trish is silent (endearing laugh aside), and deadly. The best part, she’s not making any real enemies. However, she’ll need to pull out an amazingly articulate jury speech to convince her peers of her strategic acumen. It’ll be an uphill battle for her, but I trust Trish is up for the challenge.

These are all memorable Survivor characters, and I haven’t even mentioned the #NinjaStealthMode master Yung “Woo” Hwang, the fierce police officer Sarah Lacina, and Boobs McGee herself, Morgan McLeod.

American Idol doesn’t.

Perhaps I’m just a crotchety old man now (at the ripe ‘ol age of 26), but boy are this year’s American Idol contestants young. The oldest singers, CJ Harris and Jessica Meuse are 23 years old. When you have a theme of 80’s music and not a single singer was born during that decade, that’s saying something.


Alex Preston & Sam Woolf

Quite honestly, all this youth and inexperience shows. Aside from the piano pop-rocker Jena Irene (see: “Decode”) and the retro-rocker Caleb Johnson (see: “Dazed and Confused”), none of this year’s finalists have been ready for the big stage. Yes, they’re talented. Yes, they can sing. But their passion doesn’t fill the television screen, let alone reach through and grab us the throats. It’s as if they don’t understand or even care that this is a competition. Listen up, kids, you need to IMPRESS us! You need to fight for our votes.

Flanked by Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez has become an astute judge this year. Last week, after one of the many country performers Dexter Roberts phoned in one of the many country performances, Lopez warned him, “These performances need to be spectacular… The room’s got to RATTLE. It’s got to SHAKE… You need to PUSH yourselves.” Really, this critique was an impassioned plea for all the contestants. And just like that, America eliminated Dexter the next night. Nothing distinguished him from any other country dude performing in bars across the country. He failed to stand out and make us remember him.

That’s the story with nearly all the singers this year: adequate, but not remarkable in the slightest.

Survivor has unpredictability…

Survivor_Cagayan_Tribal_CouncilNever has there been a more unpredictable season of Surivor than this one. Just look at the picture above. Look at those seven players with seven different facial expressions.

In the first post-merge Tribal Council, Tony surprises the tribe by giving LJ a hidden immunity idol before the votes were cast, causing the other alliance to scramble. LJ dropped another bombshell when he whipped his out immunity idol and gave it to Tony. Let’s look at the picture again. Observing left to right, we see Jefra’s joyous relief, LJ’s smooth confidence, Sarah’s stony bitterness, Tony’s beaming pride, #ChaosKass’ smug glee, Spencer’s sheer disbelief, and Tasha’s simple appreciation for the daring move.

But that’s not all the crazy! After all the idol dust settles, #ChaosKass blindsided her alliance and flips to the other side. Sarah goes home in a shocking elimination. #ChaosKass’ controversial move of flipping from presumably the top of a majority alliance to the bottom of a minority alliance sparked much debating among fans: Did #ChaosKass make the right move?

Now, two weeks later, we’re discussing a new power move: Did Tony make the right move? Was turning on his loyal alliance partner, LJ, brilliant gameplay or deranged? Both? Did Tony get one step closer to becoming a millionaire or did he fall prey to unnecessary paranoia? By blowing up his own alliance, he creates many possibilities for everyone to make it to the end, including himself. He’s down (under Spencer and Tasha, if the two of them get to the finals) but he’s not out (mend that relationship with Trish, stat!).

Speaking of unpredictability, who could have foreseen these once odds-on favorites to win the game fall from grace? Sarah’s tantrum-throwing and abuse of her swing vote power took her down. LJ’s false sense of security and slow-moving strategy allowed his fellow players to get the best of him.

Survivor players have evolved into savvy gamers who make their bold and brassy moves at Tribal Council, keeping viewers on their toes for the entire hour. Typical protocol once saw players enter into Tribal Council with their minds already made up, but now we watch big power plays unfold at Tribal Council. Following a one-two-three-four punch of PhilippinesCaramoan, Blood vs. Water, and now Cagayan, we are living in a time where risky moves and blindsides are the spectacular norm. What an embarrassment of riches.

American Idol doesn’t.

This year’s American Idol contestants are sorely lacking a drive to push the creative envelope. For the most part, the contestants are content with songs from their coffeehouse and bar show set-lists. Sure, it’s simpler to do songs already in your repertoire, but that doesn’t make them entertaining to watch. No matter how much constructive criticism the judges give, there’s still not much charisma onstage. All this indifference is wearing thin. (Could you look anymore dead behind the eyes, Jessica Meuse?! Do you even want to be here?)

I favorably reviewed the contestants after their Rush Week performances. Where did all that promise go? Where are the #moments?


CJ Harris

Contestants were first allowed to play musical instruments back in 2008 during the show’s seventh season. The first couple seasons following that introduction heralded a musical reinvention renaissance. The guitar was a sign of fresh-sounding departures. Think Kris Allen’s “Heartless” or Phillip Phillips’ “Volcano.” This year, however, the guitar is a crutch. Six out of the top ten have played a guitar at some point this season. The bland guitaryness of each contestant’s songs blend together, a little acoustic jam there, a little country twang there.

I’ll go ahead and say it: guitars are ruining Idol. Not only have the guitars stifled the musicality, it’s also kept the performances physically stationary and stagnant. No amount of lightbulbs, floor lamps, or living room couches can inject excitement into a Sam Woolf performance.

So props to the aforementioned guitar-less Jena and Caleb who bring a breath of fresh air when they work the stage. Their performance of “Gimme Shelter” was KILLER, with nary a guitar in sight. It was one of the scarce highlights this season.

That vital surprise factor is gone. No one is taking risks and turning songs on their head, à la David Cook’s “Billie Jean.” We are no longer shocked or awed by a Jason Mraz-lite performance by Alex Preston. We can predict CJ Harris’ Ray Lamontagne-lite sound. So what’s the point of tuning in anymore, especially if those performances are simply okay? When 80’s week revealed, I jokingly predicted we’d see an “Islands in the Stream” duet between Jessica and Dexter. And guess what? They did! YAWN.

Challenge our expectations. Do something different. We need to be SURPRISED. I’m beginning to sound a lot like J.Lo (sans auto-tune, naturally).

What’s worse is that I honestly can’t recall any of the country songs CJ or Dexter have sung, save one or two. They’re obscure (“Keep Your Hands To Yourself”) and forgettable (“Boondocks”). And in CJ’s case they’re obscure (“Radio”and forgettable (“If It Hadn’t Been For Love”and off-key (“Invisible”). This is a huge problem. Look, if you pick a song the audience isn’t familiar with, make it count. Rattle that room. Shake that room. Make us remember you. Paging Candice Glover’s “Lovesong”!

The broad themes aren’t helping. It’s been a long-standing complaint that we’ve been force-fed the same tired themes year after year (disco, big band, etc.), so this year, the producers dismissed specific themes and aimed more broadly with ones like “Home,” “This Is Me,” and “I’m With the Band.” But these themes have failed as well, by allowing the contestants to stay squarely in their wheelhouse. Specific themes challenged contestants to think outside-the-box, rearrange songs to their own musical styles, and most importantly, to develop their sense of personal artistry. All the producers have done is breed complacency.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the generic themes aren’t stopping any time soon. The next one is “A Little Bit Country, And A Little Bit Rock ‘n Roll.” What a cop-out, Idol producers. Let’s give country and rock genres to the mostly country and rock performers. That’ll shakes things up dramatically…

Survivor has steady viewership…

Let this tweet from Vulture’s West Coast editor Joe Adalian sink in for a second. The once-mighty ratings juggernaut came in second place to Survivor. And this wasn’t the first time either; Survivor has bested Idol every week for the past four weeks.

These ratings are just more bragging rights for the four-time Outstanding Host for a Reality Program Emmy Award-winner Jeff Probst. Ryan Seacrest, however: six nominations, zero wins. Still, Survivor: Cagayan is hitting all-time series lows. Unsurprisingly, ratings have declined across the board for nearly every broadcast show.

American Idol doesn’t.

Idol_Ratings_ChartThis sobering graphic courtesy of The Wrap shows that downhill slide that is American Idol‘s ratings. The simple fact of the matter is that the tired and overstuffed reality singing competition genre is past its prime, and this particular brand has been around for 13 years. Idol‘s main rival, The Voice, most recently averaged a 2.7 A 18-49 (2.7% of all homes with viewers ages 18 to 49 tuned in).

Idol‘s highest ratings for viewers ages 18 to 49 was in the show’s fifth season in 2005, with an average rating of 12.6. Now here we are, eight years later, and Idol scored a 2.2 the week of April 16th. YIKES. The Death Star is dead, but its admirable reign was long and mighty.

As long as Survivor keeps introducing vibrant new characters ready to make huge moves, it will continue to keep its fans happy and its head above water. Are you taking notes, American Idol? A blindside this late in the game would be a shame.

Is there anything that would draw viewers back to Idol? My two cents: a farewell season with the triumphant return of Simon Cowell. Those were the good ‘ol days.

My Definitive Ranking of American Idol 13’s Top 13

Last year’s Season of the Girl turned out to be a bust, so with the new American Idol producer comes a new mandate: Bring on the WGWGs (White Guys With Guitars)! But even when nearly a third of the finalists are white guys strumming the ‘ol guitar, there’s still room for a solid line-up of diverse talent. From the powerhouse to the coffeehouse, this season covers many musical bases. I’m most thankful that we’ve steered away from the “precocious teen” route of seasons past. While the youngest contestant, Malaya Watson, is only 16, her goofball charm offsets any pageant show inanity.

We’ve yet to witness a real knock-out performance from this bunch, but I concede that to faulty episode structuring rather than to insufficient talent. During the newly-instated Rush Week, only 10 guys and 10 girls out of the Top 15 were chosen to compete. So for the entirety of the episode, contestants anxiously waited for their name to be called, then had to perform immediately after hearing their name. These extremely stressful conditions and wild mood swings, not to mention a frenzied run up to the stage, didn’t always yield the best results.

Most importantly, judges Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban (with the help of new producer Per Blankens, and, yes, America, too) assembled a solid, if not yet spectacular, crop of finalists. Thankfully, the refreshingly helpful and meaty critiques have continued from all three judges during the live shows. Contestants, you better be listening. You can skip over the advice from “mentor” Randy Jackson, though.

Let’s get on with it! Here is my ranking of the Season 13’s Top 13, from my most favorite contestant to my least favorite. Click on the singer’s name to watch their Rush Week performance.

Idol_Majesty_YorkMajesty Rose: Radiant. Majesty Rose is simply radiant. Sunshine beams through every guitar chord she plays, every wide-eyed glance she gives, and every breezy note she sings. Majesty is a commanding charmer who owns the stage with a winsome presence. Vulture’s Dave Holmes described Majesty Rose as a “a little like a funkier Corinne Bailey Rae” and nothing could be further from the truth. But don’t underestimate her charms; she still possesses powerful vocal chops.

Idol_Sam_WoolfSam Woolf: Cue the confetti cannons, this WGWG is your next American Idol. I called it the moment he walked into the audition room, as I did with Season 11’s Phillip Phillips. His inherent earnestness will easily propel him to the top. I originally had Sam a few pegs lower on this list, but then I simply listened to his voice. This kid’s perfectly-pitched tone is as clear as a bell and just makes for really enjoyable radio-ready listening. So since we’ll spend the remaining three months with Sam Woolf, here’s hoping that he’ll push his musical creativity to the limits. What made Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, and Phillip Phillips underwhelming victors was their insistence on staying in the same musical lanes. Sam was just accepted into the Berklee College of Music, so that bodes well for his musicality on Idol.

Idol_Malaya_WatsonMalaya Watson: Malaya seems to thrive on being on the edge. She appears to be a confident mess of contradictions all at once, with a threat of energy that could derail a song at any moment, but that’s what makes her all the more endearing. In Tagalog, “malaya” means freedom, and that is exactly what Malaya is about. The hair. The glasses. The braces. The wild abandon. It all works. The question now is: For just how long will it all work? Will she ever crash and burn? As long as she doesn’t let her unbridled enthusiasm get the best of her, Malaya could really surprise us. Control will be the key to her success.

Idol_Jena_IreneJena Irene: While her rendition of “Paint It Black” was a disconnected misstep, Jena’s Wildcard original song, “Unbreakable Me,” was the best performance of the week. When she can tap into the right emotional resonance and knows what she’s singing about, she delivers a stark and believable rawness that sets her apart. Showcasing her deft songwriting ability has done wonders for her, as opposed to say, fellow Wildcard contestant Spencer Lloyd’s vapidly shallow original song. The display of her piano skills also supports her large-ranged vocal artistry rather than acts as a crutch.

Idol_Ben_BrileyBen Briley: Ben impressed me the most during Rush Week. His powerful and invigorating performance turned my head and make me take note of a contestant that barely made a blip on my radar the week before. He’s got grit. He’s got soul. He’s got the claim to the first Idol guitar solo. He exudes such a cool confidence that lights up the stage that I can’t help but root for the guy. Plus, he’s got some fashion sense. Harry Connick, Jr. called him out on his tie: “That’s not a Half-Windsor. That’s not a Full-Windsor. That is Windsor Castle around your neck!” Love it.

Idol_MK_NobilletteMK Nobilette: Jennifer Lopez summed it up perfectly: MK is a “quiet storm.” What she lacks in vocal pyrotechnics, she makes up for in subtle emotional connectivity. No other contestant made as much of a sheer emotional impact as MK did. There’s a vulnerability and roughness in her delivery that makes her performances all the more human. On Idol, understated often get overlooked, so MK’s triumphs have been really refreshing and encouraging.

Idol_CJ_HarrisCJ Harris: CJ is the sentimentalist of the bunch. You just know that within him is a deep well of passion just waiting to overflow. But CJ is just so full of passion, that he pushes his vocals a little too hard. At this early in the game, his warmth and humility can make up for his sharp vocal tendencies, but if his pitch continues to be a problem, it’ll be harder to overlook. Don’t you just wanna give him a big hug, though?!

Idol_Emiliy_PirizEmily Piriz: I loved the vulnerability Emily showed during her Hollywood Week performance. It was a breathtakingly gorgeous piano ballad that tapped into a strong sense of yearning. However, that yearning became a misguided mess during Rush Week. She told Randy Jackson, “I’m kind of playing more into the emotion, not more of the storyline.” As a result, her confident delivery was all surface, no purpose. To succeed in this competition, she’ll need to actually listen to the judges’ advice and bring an emotionally authenticity that befits her beautifully soaring vocals.

Idol_Alex_PrestonAlex Preston: Alex knows who he is as a musician. And as Idol would say, Alex knows who he is as an artist. The show hasn’t seen a contestant with as much musicianship as Season 10’s Casey Abrams. This calm, cool, collected vibe suits Alex well and it will be fun to watch him play with the songs each week and reinvent them in the singer-songwriter style he’s accustomed to. If anyone will push the musical envelope, it’ll be Alex.

Idol_Dexter_RobertsDexter Roberts: Dexter is the least distinguishable of the three country guys (advantage: Ben and CJ). He performs with a solid, relaxed assurance (well, he just stands there and plays guitar) and his resonant voice is the authentic real deal. But as Keith Urban cautioned, “There’s a thousand guys just like you fronting country bands in honky-tonks all over America right now and what you’ve got to do is figure out what makes you different from everybody else.” Well said, Keith. Well said. Good luck, Dexter.

Idol_Caleb_JohnsonCaleb Johnson: Caleb is one confident crooner. And his powerhouse performances are just that: performances. His 1970’s rocker vibe brings an unmatched energy to the stage this season. Only time will tell if he can use that tenacity to dig deep into something that rings true emotionally. At the moment, there’s nothing really there under his slickness and polish, but add a touch or two of grit and vulnerability and he could go far.

Idol_Jessica_MeuseJessica Meuse: There’s a wall between Jessica and the audience that she needs to tear down over the course of her Idol run. Jessica has a clear country tone and a decent musicality with her guitar playing, but there’s an emotional connectedness that’s preventing me from fully appreciating everything she’s doing. We’ve seen her dramatic side during Group round, but we’ve yet to really see her light up the stage with that same fervor. It’s in there, I’m sure. She said it herself, “Drama follows me everywhere.” So let’s see it, Jessica.

Idol_Kristen_OConnorKristen O’Connor: If I had my druthers, I would switch out Kristen O’Connor for Malcolm Allen. He has the charisma and charm that she just doesn’t. Let’s face it, Kristen is bland, bland, bland. She’s a paint-by-the-numbers singer who colors safely within the lines of what she pictures a pop diva is supposed to be. Sure, Kristen is pretty and sure, Kristen can sing, but she’s utterly and dreadfully forgettable. What were her Rush Week songs again? Yes, she performed more than once. Just think of her as this season’s Haley Scarnato. Who’s that, you ask? Think: #legs.

Sorry, did that memory get you down? Let’s have Majesty Rose bring us back up. Here’s her magnetic performance of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”:

Why Harry Connick, Jr. Is American Idol’s Saving Grace

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.