American Idol, Harry Connick Jr and the art of accepting criticism

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Don’t judge me, but I’ve been well and truly sucked in to the latest edition of American Idol.

I don’t usually watch these types of shows. For two reasons: Firstly, they’re not the portals to success they claim to be for most. (Can you name me the winner of season 8? Thought not). Secondly, and most importantly, they’re more focused on spectacle rather than actually crafting good musicians.

I’ve been involved in music for practically all of my life. One thing my musician friends complain about – and I agree with – is these shows don’t give good critique. The judges hear an extended long note from a belter and their eyes widen up, or the performer uses a million useless licks which don’t need to be there and it’s lapped up by the crowd and judging panel.

So this year’s season caught my interest when I saw Harry Connick Jr was going to be a judge. He’s a great musician but more importantly, he actually knows how to critique someone properly – and the crowd hates him for it.

Now, judges have always been booed by the crowd on American Idol. But during the past 12 years it’s never been for substantial critique, only for general comments about whether they didn’t like a performance or not. You’ll get comments about something wasn’t “believable”, or vague statements like, “I wasn’t really feeling it”. 

Instead, Connick looks the contestants in the eye and says things like, “your intonation was off, you need to work on that”, or “you took out your ear monitor, I’m not sure why you did that”. Or even, “you do this strange thing with your tongue that affects your singing – but that’s a quick fix”.

During one of the shows last week, he told a singer that he sang out of tune – which was completely true – and the crowd booed him. Booed him.

It’s so strange to me as someone who has grown up around music, currently plays music in a band and has several musician friends. When I play in the band at my Church, it’s the job of the leader to tell the various musicians what’s going on. It’s common for him or her to take a pass at a song, then turn to each musician and correct or confirm their playing.

Often, I might hear a leader say, “that was good, Pat, but let’s leave it quiet in the second verse”, or “you’re hitting those notes too hard in the chorus, let’s leave it back a little”. 

I’m used to this, and so is everyone in the band, because we recognise that when we receive critique we’re going to give a better performance as a whole. It’s not about us but rather the collective output of the group. Hell, if you’re a writer then you know this experience all too well.

When I was starting my role as a business journalist, my editor had me stand behind him while he would edit my work furiously. For each line he would ask me, “why did you write this?” or “why did you use this word?” 

When someone is looking at your choices and questioning them, you start to do the same – and if you don’t have an answer it can become uncomfortable very, very quickly – and you get defensive.

This is why the crowds at American Idol don’t like when Connick points out something which is so obviously true. Not because we live in a culture of positivity and shutting down anything which could possibly make us better, even when it hurts, (although that is true), but because they’ve never been in a situation in which criticism is needed to perfect a craft. Singing – like other artistic pursuits – is serious business. It requires honing over years and years.

To be perfectly frank, this is why a lot of people who have a hint of creativity tend to balk at going any further that a year of practice or so because they don’t know how to accept criticism. When you’re performing anything creative, a piece of you is inside whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a song, poem, dance – whatever. When someone critiques part of that, you feel like they’re critiquing not just you – but the experiences, personality and spirit that went into the performance in the first place.

And hey, critique is uncomfortable. Look at how Connick looks the contestants in the eye and tells them they did something wrong. Everything he’s telling them = don’t do stupid licks, sing in tune, don’t go over the top – is against everything a lot of the contestants have heard on the radio or in popular culture.

It might be a long stretch, but I can consider the crowd’s difficulty in accepting critique as being connected to the culture of personality in which we live. So much of popular culture today is built on snapshots – something that’s here today and gone tomorrow. It’s hard to accept critique – to think of the long term in perfecting a craft – when that particular song feels good right now. Who cares if the singer put in heaps of useless licks and rolls? It made me happy – so what?

But critique isn’t about cutting down a personality for the sake of hurting them. Connick looks those singers in the eye and tells them how to get better because he cares about them. He wants to see talent nurtured, and just as a child will never grow into a capable adult if they go undisciplined, a craft will never improve if it’s fed a diet of positive reinforcement. 

I remember in my final year of high school, I tried so hard to get an A+ on an assignment all year. I never did. I asked my teacher why I never quite got there, and she said something interesting – that she never intended on giving anyone an A+. There’s always a way to improve, she said.

She was right. You’re never perfect, you’re never going to reach the top. Perfecting a craft is a lifelong journey, and critique is the fuel that drives it – anyone looking to become a creative professional needs to understand that as early as possible. If they do, they’ll be all the better for it.  

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