'American Idol' Votes for Integrity: Why Harry Connick Jr. Became the Newest Judge
The star brings his special message to the hit show: Be true to the music (and yourself)
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
It’s about someone being recognized and rewarded for having integrity in the workplace. Integrity can get you in a lot of trouble. Anyone who’s challenged company policy or taken on a boss at the conference table knows there can be unpleasant consequences for being honest and direct. Despite being a superstar, Connick found this out when he disagreed with Idol judge Randy Jackson on the air last May.
As a guest mentor, Connick challenged the show’s credibility. He spoke out against a value system that puts style over substance, one that encourages talented-but-unskilled singers to execute empty vocal pyrotechnics. Connick tangled with Jackson over this central issue.
Connick’s heated point was that a singer must master a song before he or she can interpret it. You have to know the melody and why the song starts on a certain note and understand its lyrics before you can make it your own.
(MORE: Why Harry Connick Jr. Couldn't Sit Idol During 'Idol')
Jackson insisted that night that one of the women contestants should have performed either the Etta James or Lena Horne version of Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" — "and then be you." That's when Connick left his seat in the audience to confront Jackson. “No! You got to pick the Harold Arlen version!” Connick proclaimed. “You got to learn the song, and then you can be you!”
It looked as if Connick wasn’t going to be invited back anytime soon.
That night after the show aired, I wrote a blog for Next Avenue about Connick’s controversial appearance. I wanted to congratulate and cheer him. I’ve always been an Idol fan and have followed every season. But I’ve never liked its emphasis on the judges praising singers for throwing subtlety to the wind. As I mentioned in my blog, a minimalist like Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee could never survive the show’s first round of eliminations. I was thrilled that someone — a brilliant musician, someone far more knowledgeable about music than I, no less — had finally spoken out.
So too, it turned out, were millions of people on this planet. The blog went viral. Musician after musician praised Connick for being an artistic whistle blower.
But it wasn’t just musicians who related to his outrage.
Connick’s point was that you can't break the rules until you understand them. This speaks to everyone who has spent years perfecting his or her craft, be it music, drawing, writing, carpentry, architecture, child rearing, teaching, dancing or you name it. And the only way you learn this is from experience.
I wasn’t sure I was going to stick around for the next season of Idol. But with Connick onboard, I won’t miss an episode. How fortunate the contestants will be to receive constructive comments from someone who knows the Great American Songbook inside and out. I can’t wait to hear what he has to tell them. Besides Connick, the young singers will also have Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez to learn from — they’ve already proved themselves to be excellent critics and teachers. Gone are the mean old days of Simon Cowell and, at the other extreme, the “Gee, you’re good, and I wouldn't change a thing” days of judge Ellen DeGeneres.
The public was definitely on Connick’s side on that fateful Idol night in May. He told me in a phone conversation I had with him after my blog came out that he didn’t know it at the time. He was afraid he might be perceived as an arrogant bully.
Welcome to American Idol, Judge Harry. For once integrity didn’t get the boot.