We have a year to emotionally prepare before we have to say goodbye to American Idol forever. But today, news of the competition’s ultimate cancelation takes the back seat to season 14’s finale, which kicks off at 9 p.m. ET. The two-part event will reveal our final two—Jax, Clark Beckham, and Nick Fradiani remain—and see them battle it out for the coveted title, in between performances by Ricky Martin, New Kids on the Block, Fall Out Boy, and Pitbull, among others.
We talked to judge Harry Connick Jr. about this season, why he keeps some distance from the contestants, and his impromptu performance of “Teenage Dream.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re heading into a two-part finale tonight. Who do you think will be the last one standing?
HARRY CONNICK JR: I couldn’t tell you, man. Based on what I saw the past few nights, everyone is really strong. It’s exciting for me because I at least know what songs they’re going to sing, so I do my homework and prepare as much as I can. But then they come out on stage and they’ve got completely different approaches to the songs. I never know where they’re gonna come from.
This is your second season as a judge. Ahead of auditions, you said you were really searching for great musicians who can also perform, which is where last season struggled. Do you think you accomplished that?
I think so. I mean, listen. All of these kids, they’re all talented. But the ones this year were a little more ready to be on a big stage. You can see with a guy like Nick who has come a long way—he may have been reserved in the beginning, more like the kids last year, but he’s grown a lot. It’s one thing to sit in your room or house or small club and play, but it’s another thing to get in front of millions of people. It can be daunting, especially for young performers.
And this is a particularly young group of contestants.
Really young! It’s not as much about age and personality as it is about ability to produce in a high-stress situation. They’re handling it great.
There was a moment of conflict a few weeks back when Quentin said of the show, “The whole thing is wack.” You guys exchanged words, and people really reacted. Do you think that ultimately contributed to his exit?
I would hope not. I didn’t really meet him until after the votes came in that night and he went home, because I don’t know any of them or talk to any of them. But that night, I went up to him and gave him a big hug. He couldn’t have been nicer, very smart. It happened, he said he was sorry that night, and I had moved on by the second song. So it would be sad if people held it against him. As smart and creative and intense as he is, he just hasn’t had the chance yet in life to really study music. And the people that stayed after him had a bit more of that.
That seemed to be a theme this season—the kids who had studied the technical side of music versus the kids who had talent but not the education.
The thing is, it’s easy for people who haven’t studied music to talk about how important the emotions are. And the emotions are extremely important! But the other stuff is important, too. The problem is, people think that the more you learn, the less passionate and soulful you’re gonna be. Like it’s gonna make you a nerd. It doesn’t work like that. You’re born passionate, and if you’re a nerdy intellectual, you’re wired that way. And I’m not going to not talk about the technical things just because I feel like nobody understands. You simply have to learn the fundamentals. Jen will be the first to tell you that. You ask her if she took dance lessons as a kid and she’ll say, of course! She’ll tell you what a jeté is and what a plié is and what first position is. Why is it okay for a dancer to learn that and not a musician?
One of the strangest moments of the year was your accidental performance of “Teenage Dream”. What happened?
So weird. Man, that was so weird! My daughters love it. A lot of kids get embarrassed by their parents, but mine have been subject to me doing goofball stuff for so long [that] they thought it was funny. It’s one of those songs you sing to on the radio, but when you have to sing it without Katy Perry? I was like man, I can’t remember any of these words!
Before you became a judge, you were a fan-favorite mentor. Which do you prefer?
Being a mentor is a lot more fun. You get to hang out, talk to them, laugh with them, get serious, get playful, get to know them, really get inside their heads and have a dialogue. Being a judge, you just respond to information that is presented to you in an objective way. You don’t know how hard it is for me to see those kids backstage and just say “hi” and walk past them. You have to keep a distance.
So after auditions you really don’t talk to them at all?
After Qaasim was eliminated, I introduced myself and learned I’ve been friends with his godmother for 30 years, which would have gotten in my head. I don’t wanna know anything about them. I don’t wanna know their family life, I don’t wanna know their backstory. I just need to judge what they’re doing on stage. I love these kids, and I’d love to hang out with them. But that’s not what they hired me to do.