I’ve watched American Idol since its inception and am a fan. Months ago, I predicted that Angie would win this year. we will know for sure in a few weeks.

In the post-Simon Cowell years of American Idol, the quality of judging has become tedious, cloying and adoring of the young contestants. There has been little instructive teaching for the kids competing or the audience at home. That’s a shame because American Idol used to feature legendary artists every week as mentors who would perform a quickie masterclass for contestants (and audience) who otherwise would enjoy no such access to expertise. One of my favorite mentors a few years back was Harry Connick, Jr. It was also one of the lowest rated episodes of the season. Despite the relative (un)popularity of Mr. Connick, he taught the kids, played with them and wrote charts suited to their talents. He was a great mentor.

I was thrilled to see Harry back on Idol again this week and he ignited a firestorm when he refused to agree with the incredibly terrible advice being dispensed by an incredibly disingenuous Randy Jackson. You can the details of his awful advice in the well-written article linked below, but suffice to say that Mr. Jackson knows better. He may not have the talent and musical knowledge of Harry Connick, Jr., but he has enjoyed a great deal of success in the music business. If Randy Jackson had been paying for Kree’s studio time as a producer, his advice would have been exactly the same as that of Mr. Connick.

After Wednesday night’s show, an educator colleague of mine posted the following message on Facebook:

Harry Connick seems sort of mean and opinionated. #justsayin
I admit that I lost it and posted the following comment:
TEACHERS SHOULD HAVE OPINIONS and be great at what they do!I could not disagree more. American Idol vs. Harry Connick Jr. is a great metaphor for everything wrong with American culture. The entire season has been spent repeating clichés and telling the contestants that they are geniuses. Celebrity and popularity are not the same as talent or artistry.

How dare those kids call themselves artists? Artist, reformer and revolutionary are terms that must be bestowed upon you by others. As Seinfeld said, “I’m 17. Why aren’t I huge?”

Harry Connick, Jr. is an incredibly gifted singer, pianist, composer, arranger, technology pioneer and he acts too. He has been a professional musician since he was 5.

He is an expert in jazz history and the American songbook.

Amber and Kree’s performance of classic standards was atrocious. It is NOT unreasonable to expect “singers” about to get rich beyond their dreams to learn or understand a song. Countless thousands of peers of the “Idols” studying music around the country do so. In fact, jazz majors at Julliard are required to memorize every piece of music they perform, including full big band arrangements.

My friend Emmet Cohen is 22 years old and knows a few thousand songs that he can play and improvise on in 12 keys. That’s artistry and talent.

Harry gave Kree incredibly good advice and she ignored all of it. She added runs to almost every note. It was unmusical.

Harry Connick is the expert. Kree is the student. She should behave accordingly and be open to instruction. Randy’s advice to her was completely disingenuous. He would NEVER tolerate such a shambolic performance if he was spending his time or money producing her.

The judges do the kids no favor my not teaching them or asking them to “just be Kree.” Being Kree is terrible advice. She’s an amateur with a lot to learn.

I sure wish every American student could have a good music teacher. It would make the world a better place!

It is unclear as to whether the American Idol contestants were disrespectful of Harry Connick, Jr. and his expertise or just so musically ignorant and untalented that they are incapable of following his advice.
Some of you might be asking, “Why are we making kids who want to be pop-stars sing show-tunes?
There are two answers:
  1. As Randy Jackson reminds us constantly, “this is a singing competition!” Singers should be able to sing anything.
  2. The #1 album today is by Michael Bublé, a guy who sings the Great American Songbook. These classic songs are contemporary hits.
“The point Connick tried to make, which Jackson didn’t want to hear, was that the show’s contestants didn’t know these classic songs well enough to take liberties with their melodies and lyrics. In doing so, they were murdering the music.” – John Stark

You must not tell a 17 year-old that she needs to “figure out who you are as an artist.”

That really cheapens the notion of an artist.

Eight or nine nights each week for the past several months my family and were caught up in the American Idol phenomena. 38 million Americans watched the show’s season finale. I am encouraged that it is still possible to bring generations together around a wholesome event. In addition to being wildly entertaining, American Idol offers many lessons for educators.

All sorts of kids have talents we have yet to discover
The extraordinary drive and talent of the young adults participating in American Idol should remind us of the untapped potential in our students.

Hard work pays off
The American Idol contestants worked their tails off to prepare for each week’s show. Teachers involved in the performing arts know how hard children will work to prepare for a performance and similar opportunities need to become the norm in other subject areas.

Learning occurs best with an audience
An audience for one’s work gives that effort greater purpose. It not only motivates the learner, but also provides occasions for authentic assessment.

You need to be well-rounded
American Idol contestants needed to sing, dance and speak articulately. Only folks possessing the whole package would advance.

Cooperation is valuable
Nothing is learned in isolation. While American Idol was a competition, the finalists were required to perform together. This cooperation gave the performers greater respect for one another and taught valuable life lessons for the future.

Achieving ones goals is not a zero-sum game
I believed the “idols” who said that participating was reward enough, even if they did not win the competition. The television show sustained this community of practice by having the “losers” in the top ten return frequently for choreographed ensemble performances. Some of the “losers” have embarked on successful careers due to this exposure and their willingness to give it their all regardless of the situation. Clay seemed genuinely happy for Ruben when he was named “The American Idol.”

There are no makeup tests
You get one chance at the plate and have to hit it out of the park every time. When Clay forgot the lyrics to a song in the final rounds, he had to recover with grace and move on.

Talent trumps superficiality
I was impressed by how often the viewers rejected “sexier” contestants for those with more talent. This is all the more remarkable when viewers are picking a pop “idol.” Perhaps folks aren’t as shallow as we thought.

Education is growth
The contestants actually improved each week. That demonstrates their willingness to incorporate advice, experience, talent and risk-taking in order to improve their future performance.

You need to be able to take a punch
Responding to the audience may enhance all human expression. Some of Simon’s critiques were brutal, but honest. The successful performers respected that criticism. learned from it and responded in productive ways. This helped them improve.

A life in the arts is full of rejection, not often so lovingly offered. Students need to recognize the difficulty that lies ahead while not abandoning their dreams or desire to bring beauty to the world.

You learn by working outside of your comfort zone
While it was clear that some idols were better dancers than others, each contestant did their best to improve in areas outside of their comfort zone.

Master as many genres as possible
The requirement that contestants perform in a number of different genres leveled the playing field while causing the singers to stretch. You don’t have to like everything asked of you, but you must do your best. Flexibility and versatility are extremely desirable virtues.

Respect history
While you can hardly consider Bee Gees or Neil Sedaka relics, millions of American youngsters were introduced to their songwriting talents. Great songs are timeless. The American Idol contestants benefited from the wisdom dispensed by these elders.

Production values don’t matter
Educational software and television producers believe that kids won’t watch anything without the latest in 3-D special effects. Great storytelling or music trumps production values. The American Idol set was ghastly and the background videos were distracting.

Teaching is storytelling
Part of what made millions of viewers tune into each show was the compelling use of storytelling that held your interest, recapitulated what you may have missed and introduced you to the lives and work of various musicians.

You care about great characters
The biographical profiles of each finalist and footage of them clowning around allowed viewers to identify with the contestants and get behind their favorites.

You must be graceful in defeat
Perhaps the most astounding part of American Idol was that seconds after being eliminated, that youngster needed to put on a happy face and belt one more song out for the audience. This demonstrated a remarkable level of graciousness, professionalism and poise.

Young people are willing to vote
…but apparently only if they like the candidates.

Americans are ahead of the media on race
I was frankly considered that America would not choose an overweight African American as their American Idol, regardless of his talents. The selection of Ruben Studdard proved that Americans were a lot hipper and talent than the national media whose magazine covers screamed, “Was American Idol Fixed?” following the final episdoe.

Originally published in the August 2003 issue of District Administration Magazine