How Harry Connick Jr. Made American Idol Fun Again

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American Idol judge Harry Connick Jr. Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

“So this is where I do ma writin’,” drawls Harry Connick Jr., pulling out a chair in front of the desk he keeps in his trailer, which is today parked facing an alley at the back of the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Outside is a Springsteenian tableau of shuttered businesses splashed with dirty slush. Inside this clean, beige man cave, it’s a balmy Sunday morning, a perpetual jazz brunch.

Connick tinkles his computer’s keyboard, pulling up the score for “I Concentrate on You,” an old Cole Porter tune he’ll perform later this evening for the jazz enthusiasts, big-band aficionados, and American Idol fans who will brave the cold to attend his show at the old Art Deco theater. But first he must fiddle with the arrangement, as has become his daily ritual. “I get bored singing the same songs every night,” he explains, adding a staccato marking to the parts for brass section. “Bidddeee-biddee baaaap,” he scats. “Bap!” 

He takes a slug out of the gallon of water he’s been drinking to lube up his pipes. “So that’s what I do all day,” he says happily.

That Connick is here, nerding out over arrangements while his Idol co-stars Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban are in Hollywood, undergoing the shellacking necessary to attend the Academy Awards, will come as no surprise to anyone who has gotten to know him on the past two seasons of the show.

At first when Connick stepped in to replace Randy Jackson and the human equivalent of two fistfuls of Valium on the Idol judges panel, it seemed like an odd choice for a show about finding the next big thing. After all, he wasn’t like the other pop stars who’ve presided over that electric-blue bench. He’s never had a drug addiction, started a feud, or made it clap in a music video. His face looks suspiciously as though he has never had a part of his butt injected into it. He makes family movies and music that moms like. He has an album called When My Heart Finds Christmas, for Pete’s sake.

But then a funny thing happened. Connick’s presence made the show good again. American Idol has always had a mean streak. It was born in the Age of Snark, propelled by Simon Cowell, whose cutting remarks powered its initial rise. For every talent it celebrated, Idol made laughingstocks of a dozen — on SNL, Rachel Dratch memorably parodied a contestant by caterwauling Whitney Houston with a tiny arm sprouting from her head — but was so successful in doing this for so long that producers appeared slow to notice when the cultural tides changed. Ratings for the show began to plummet several seasons ago.

Maybe Connick has something to do with the show scrapping these sorts of horror-show auditions, maybe not. But his arrival — first as a mentor who helped contestants prepare for performances, followed by his ascendance to the position of judge — seemed to have had the effect of a teacher entering the room. Everyone stopped screwing around and started doing what they were supposed to, which is making a show about music.

And Connick knows music. He has ever since he was a kid and his parents, New Orleans muckety-mucks out of a John Grisham novel who also happened to own a record store, introduced him to the music of Miles Davis. He started playing the piano at 3, and by age 9 he was giving concerts alongside jazz legends.

Almost certainly, Harry Connick Jr. took the job on Idol mostly to make wads of cash and connect with a younger audience. But once seated in his chair, he assumed an air of deep authority. “My mother was a real judge,” he tells me. “So I think a lot about what it means to be a judge, and I take it really very seriously.” He called out his predecessor’s catchall descriptor pitchy (“It’s not a word”) and gave viewers the proper names of the annoying tics contestants develop when they’re showing off, with vocal gymnastics on loooooooong no-oo-o-o-o-oooo-otes. (They’re called “runs” and “licks.”) “I have no idea why you did that,” he told one contestant bluntly after one such incident. “It’s silly … Don’t sing notes that are not in the chords.”

He educates himself on their song choices. “Like, if it’s a Pink song, I’ll make sure I know who wrote the song, the history of the people who wrote the song, Pink’s history, the video, any other possible versions of the song, people’s interpretations of the lyrics,” he says. “And I develop my own interpretation of the lyrics, take pretty copious notes, and know just about everything there is to know, so when the person comes to sing that song, I’ll know: Are they copying Pink? Or are they going back a step and looking at the lyrics and trying to build their own performance?”

Occasionally, he expounds on the finer points of music. “What’s wrong with challenging America?” he asked Jennifer Lopez once when she tried to shush his explanation of the musical term pentatonics. Lopez was taken aback, but she probably didn’t want to say on live TV “What’s wrong is that the ratings on this show are terrible and pentatonics is probably not helping.”

It’s true that Connick’s arrival hasn’t reversed the show’s fortunes, and he worries about how he’s perceived. “I get a lot of people saying, ‘You look so mean, you don’t stand up and applaud,’ ” he says. “I don’t clap, because, like, a bomb could go off in that theater and I wouldn’t notice because I’m so deeply focused on what they’re doing, which may mean I’m being moved to tears, or I’m not impressed at all, but I am laser-beam focusing.”

This is not to say he can’t have fun. Connick is an old-fashioned, capital-E Entertainer. On the show, he has a slapstickily homoerotic relationship with Urban and plays the ribbing older brother to Lopez, gently checking her privilege whenever she seems befuddled by references to things like doing the dishes or flying coach.

At age 47, Connick has grown into his looks the way a leather chair gets more comfortable with age. At 21, when Rob Reiner approached him to record the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally, he was all blue eyes and baby face and dreamy baritone. Soon he was not only providing the soundtrack for rom-coms but starring in them (Hope Floats, P.S. I Love You). He married one of the original Victoria’s Secret catalogue models, Jill Goodacre. But even after he went Hollywood, he didn’t really go Hollywood, he says. “Like, I didn’t go to parties,” he says. “Not that I didn’t want to.” He just had something more enticing keeping him occupied. As long as his albums made money, the record company was giving him carte blanche to do what he wanted. “If I wanted to make a record with 30 violin players and a full woodwind section, I could,” he says, still delighted just talking about it. “Like if you were a painter and somebody gave you infinite amounts of paint, and they just kept sliding it under the door every day, and they kept sliding brushes and canvases, you’d never leave the room.” It was only a few years ago that he realized maybe he was missing a few things. Like popular music.

But he’s getting to know that landscape — “I think Katy Perry’s talented. I think Ariana Grande’s talented.” He’s also traveling around the country with Idol, which has been eye-opening for him. “The people auditioning are kind of bereft of indigenous influence. Like, when we were in New Orleans, they could have been from anywhere. When you’re sitting in your room somewhere in Idaho when you’re influenced by Brazilian music, it’s amazing, but what about the local stuff?” He takes another glug of his water. “But I guess that’s what forces cultures to grow and change.” He could be talking about his own run on Idol here. “You never know what’s going to come out of it.”

*This article appears in the April 6, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.