In, Not Of: Christians in Entertainment, Part II

In, Not Of: Christians in Entertainment, Part II March 6, 2014

Harry Connick Jr., Wiki commons
I was initially inspired to explore the topic of Christians in entertainment by Harry Connick, Jr. So of course, Part I was about somebody else. But now I’m back with Part II, and this one is all about Harry. Whether or not you’re a fan, I hope you’ll enjoy this post, because it explores important questions about what changes and what stays the same when someone who’s serious about his faith becomes a mega-star in mainstream entertainment. (Preemptive side note: Catholicism vs. Protestantism is relevant to this post, but please don’t turn the thread into a discussion of whether Catholics are Christians at all. Thanks!)

There are those who can perform. There are those who can write. There are those who can play. Then there are those who can do all three with aplomb. Yes, boys and girls, before there was Michael Buble, there was Harry Connick, Jr. And yes, I died a little just putting Michael Buble in the same sentence with Harry Connick, Jr.
A child prodigy born and bred in New Orleans, Connick released his first jazz album at age eleven. He then spent his teens honing his craft under Ellis Marsalis. In the superb documentary The Worlds of Harry Connick, Jr. (click here for the whole thing), Marsalis fondly recalls punishing Connick for laziness in practicing his Bach by withholding jazz lessons. He tried to motivate the boy with the prospect of being humiliated by some other hot-shot kid at one of his classical piano competitions. Problem was, Connick never lost.
His big breakthrough came at age twenty-two when Rob Reiner invited him to arrange and record a collection of jazz standards for the hit rom-com When Harry Met Sally. The rest was multi-platinum-plated history for the young star, who also started to find steady acting work with films like The Memphis Belle and Independence Day. To back his musical chops, his easy charm and electric stage presence earned him a reputation as a killer entertainer. You can see why in this cover of the Disney classic “Bare Necessities.”
“And then Michael Bolton sang, and L. L. Cool J sang a number, and Milli Vanilli didn’t sing anything…”
As a small kid in the 90s, I was first introduced to his music through “A Wink And a Smile”, from Sleepless in Seattle (which I mistakenly thought he’d also written). But for some reason, I hadn’t really explored the rest of his discography until I came to write this post. Connick is one of those artists who’s always reinventing himself, which is perfect for a restless, eclectic listener like me.  Tight jazz trio, big band, experimental funk, gospel dabbling—whatever, it’s quality work even if I prefer certain tracks over others. Perhaps his best original was actually just released last year. Seriously, this one vaulted into my “Top Ten Romantic-est Things Ever” overnight:
Sunsets make way for the evening sky
Night-time makes room for the day
Treasure her love ’til the day you die
And never give it away… (Some of you might also be interested in this hand-held concert footage of his takes on “When the Saints Go Marching In” — which picks up big-time after a 2-minute intro — “Jesus On the Mainline,” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” The latter is pretty changed up and three times too long for my tastes, but  if your tastes run in the Michael English/Jason Crabb vein, you’ll probably enjoy it.)
When I discovered that Connick was a more-than-nominal Catholic, it piqued my interest. I learned that his mother was a more or less secular Jew (making him Jewish, ethnically), but his father was Irish-Catholic. Consequently, Harry’s early childhood lacked religious structure, something he later said that he “missed.” But his mother was emphatic that he should choose his faith for himself. She died of ovarian cancer when he was thirteen. The following year, Harry Connick, Jr. chose to be baptized into the Catholic church. He attended mass at one of America’s great cathedrals—the St. Louis Cathedral. He received his highschool education from the renowned Jesuit High School of New Orleans. Since then, he’s only ever identified as a devout Catholic. (But we’ll come back to the Jesuit thing later.)
So, how well has Connick represented his faith in the entertainment world? Well, his happy 20-year marriage and normal family life already set him apart from an alarming percentage of celebrities. He explains, “My wife and I are very serious about the vows of marriage… She is my best friend and I love her. She is the only wife I will ever have.” Awwww. And when Jay Leno asked on the Tonight Show in 1994  if he was going to “do the kid thing,” Harry responded enthusiastically, “Big kid thing!” How many? “A hundred.” Then, more seriously, ” ‘Cuz I love children, you know. I think that would be really awesome.” Awww, again. (Though in fact they’ve had “only” three daughters.)
Moreover, if you look up “professional integrity” in the dictionary, you’ll find Harry Connick winking back at you. Nowhere has this been better displayed than on his stints as a mentor and now a judge on American Idol. He jokes that a bomb could go off unnoticed by him while he’s watching a contestant perform, because he’s so intently focused on analyzing it to give the maximally helpful feedback. Said feedback is at once brutally honest and genuinely insightful. (Group night: “It was even worse in rehearsal!” “I find that difficult to believe.”) If a performance was pitchy, Connick will say so and relish the audience boos. If a contestant shows that he hasn’t thought about the lyrics, Connick will force him to. And he loves to geek out with a contestant who shows some actual musical knowledge. (“Well, she did a diminished chord, and that did it for me.” “I love it that you ended on the nine again man, that’s awesome! Did everyone hear that?”)
At the same time, this is show biz, and Connick remains very alive to that fact. When an impossibly good-looking young worship leader gave a middling audition, I watched the judges literally thinking out loud. (Lopez: “It’s not like he can’t sing…”) Connick was openly squirming in his seat, but eventually said yes: “You’re gonna bring something to American Idol that needs to be there. It’s an image thing.” It was painful to see the artist die a little inside as he did the mental math. Thankfully, while the kid hung around much longer than he deserved, we got rid of him before the Top 13.
How good is Connick’s judgment when it comes to the moral aspects of his work? On the one hand, there’s this somewhat eyebrow-raising quote from a Catholic podcast, apropos of the interviewer’s reference to Catholic actress Siobhan Hogan:

It’s interesting how your faith can lead you to make certain decisions. Everybody has a different way of looking at it, but… it definitely makes you think twice before you do certain things.
[…] I’m an artist, and artists have an opportunity to explore places where maybe some people wouldn’t normally go. And some of those places that you explore, especially as an actor, you may find that they’re completely contradictory to what you pray about on Sunday… And so, I had to come to terms with not being put off or shocked by any kind of performance that I do, because that’s a separate world… you know like Siobhan might make certain decisions that preclude her… certain decisions about what she’s gonna portray, I’m exactly the opposite…  it’s almost like when you think of the people that, you know, what we learned at Jesuit, you know the people that Christ hung out with, like Peter, these were not the most respected people in society, you know?… For me, it’s about embracing everything as an artist.

This echoes his Crosswalk interview, where he essentially admitted that his time in the business had corrupted him a bit (not in those words of course). As a very young man, he wouldn’t even swear in a movie or kiss an actress (like Kirk Cameron). Now he’s been known to drop a bleeped-out f-bomb or two in a tense moment on Idol. And let’s just say not every lyric he sings embodies a Christian sexual ethic. But on the whole, the style of his music and his limited range as an actor (bland chick flicks, family movies and…) have combined to render these dubious comments largely moot. Except that one time he played a serial killer, which is probably what he had in mind here. That script required him to attempt (unsuccessfully) to kill a woman on camera. And I can’t agree with Harry there. That sort of “art” is unhealthy both for the actor and the viewer. It appeals to the gut, not to the mind or the heart. As Christians, we shouldn’t lose the capacity to be “shocked.” But interestingly, there are still some things that apparently do shock him. Here he discusses current pop music:

Some of the stuff I don’t like – some of the stuff I find pretty disgraceful. There’s some music out there that has lyrics that are just base and offensive primarily to women….
I mean I’m all about freedom of speech and being creative, but some of this stuff is really like musical p*rnography. I mean, it’s really disgusting. My oldest is 17 and I can’t police things. Sometimes she’ll be hanging with her friends and I hear stuff and I think I’m listening to it in a different way than they are. I don’t even know if they’re paying attention, but I’m like come on man, seriously, that’s nasty.

While it’s sad that he feels helpless to control his own daughter’s music choices, he has admirably tried to do his part in this realm on Idol. When two different young women chose the same particularly “nasty” pop song this year, he gently but firmly expressed disapproval both times. The first time, judge Jennifer Lopez patronizingly brushed him aside: “Oh, you’re just saying that because you have daughters that age!” She may be onto something there, but Connick also pressed the matter with an older, more talented girl. Though he joked she was a legal adult now who could “technically sing what she wanted,” he then challenged her to speak the first two embarrassingly risque lines of the song again. “Is that really what you want to be singing about?” She nervously gave him some hot feminist mess about “Well, yeah, like it’s about a woman getting what she wants and powerful and… yeah.” Naturally Harry was booed and she was cheered (I noticed her parents cheering in the audience too—yay parents). He caught some flak from the press for so-called “slut-shaming,” but no apology is forthcoming. Thank goodness.

Stories like this show that unlike Simon Cowell, Harry actually loves and cares about these young singers. When his colleagues gave a golden ticket to one pretty but bland Underwood wannabe, Harry said candidly after she left, “I wouldn’t have voted her through. Because the heartbreak she’s gonna get, I think, is gonna outweigh that one moment of joy she has right now.” They disagreed, “That’s all right, that’s part of it too, that’s good…,” but Connick pushed back: “But on a national stage? She’d be better off in the practice room.” (Fortunately she was sent home in Hollywood with minimal drama.)  Hugging another girl who just missed the Top 30, he assured her, “You’re extremely talented.” Then he looked her in the eye and repeated, with emphasis, “You’re extremely talented. There were smany decisions that went into this. Please come back. Don’t quit the fight. You hear me?” She nodded tearily and received one more hug before leaving.
Connick’s heart and faith have also been manifested through two major American tragedies. First, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he threw himself into the relief efforts and co-founded the rebuilding project Musician’s Village with Branford Marsalis. Refreshingly, he later refused to be baited into blaming Bush, Jr. in retrospect on the Piers Morgan show. When Morgan trotted out the leftist line about possible “surreptitious racism,” the musician replied with eminent good sense:

Well, I mean my dad’s not poor and black and, you know, he had a hell of a time getting out of New Orleans. My Aunt Jessie and my Uncle John were on their rooftop. And the last time I checked, they were as white as I was. So I don’t know – you know what, really – at this point in my relationship with that event… this may upset some people to say, but who cares?

On Larry King Live, Harry told the story behind one striking image from that tragedy: The singer also felt the chill of death in 2012, when his saxophone player Jimmy Green (also Christian) lost his daughter in the Newtown shootings. At the funeral, friends and family spoke of her faith in God and her favorite saying, “Love wins.” Harry reflected later that he thought of his mother, and he felt reassured that he would see her again, just as Jimmy would see his daughter again. In this interview, he declares, “Evil did not win. Love wins. Nothing can trump the power of love.” He penned and recorded a big, Brooklyn Tab-style tune of that name with an all-star gospel choir and gave the proceeds to the Greens (listen here). While the soloists kind of grated on me vocally, and while I can never separate the hook in my mind from a certain Rob Bell book, the lyrics are Connick’s most explicitly Christian to date:

When a tragedy befalls us, love wins
In the moment that He calls us, love wins
When we finally see the kingdom come, eternity begins
Love wins.
Whenever there is tension, love wins
From the time of His ascension, love wins
In the sacrifice he made for us, to wash away our sins
Love wins
[…] In the throes of desperation, love wins
Through the lure of my temptation, love wins
And my cries of faith will be replaced 
By the sound of violins
All praise be to God
Love wins…

I hear you asking, “All this is great, but… what about politics?” Well, let me ask you this: What do you expect when you take a soft-hearted guy, by personality not a thinker or a culture warrior, theologically educated by Jesuits, and add twenty-odd years in the mainstream entertainment world? All together now: a leftie. To his credit, Harry has striven mightily to keep his politics private and separate from his work as an entertainer. (“I don’t think anyone wants to hear it, and I don’t think I really know what I’m talking about.”) But scratch the surface, and that is what you’ll find underneath. He voted for Obama in 2008 because he met him once and thought he was a nice guy. And when asked about his views on homosexuality last year, he said vaguely that he wasn’t qualified to answer but “glad” there were people “powerful” enough to do “what needs to be done legislatively” (*shiver*).

His views on the latter have solidified more publicly on this year’s AI. In one sense, it’s shown that he doesn’t take homosexuality seriously enough, regarding it as acceptable jock joke fodder (usually at the expense of fellow Idol judge Keith Urban). On the other hand, his more “serious” comments regarding AI’s first openly gay contestant (a girl) show that he doesn’t grok the moral problem atoll. She chose to “come out” after the judges had selected her for the Top 30, but once she did, Harry’s response was typical bleeding-heart liberal pablum. Reacting in real-time to her statement, “I’m very obviously gay, and there are always gonna be people in America who are gonna hate. But I think there have been a lot of changes in the past few years that have made it a positive thing,” Harry instantly murmured, “Thank goodness.” He was recently seen on the Ellen Degeneres show reiterating “what a wonderful moment” this was for America.
The question remains as to precisely when and why he developed these desperately wrong-headed ideas. If he had a strict enough moral code at one point to feel convicted about swearing, how under-educated could he have been about biblical sexual ethics? It’s tempting to ascribe it all to two decades of peer pressure and group-think. Yet his earlier muddled comments about “what he learned in Jesuit school” give me reason to suspect that’s only part of it. It seems plausible that non-judgmentalism and the social gospel were emphasized over and above sound exegesis in his particular background. I’m persuaded that his education did go beyond “Jesus was nice, you be nice too,” but maybe not as much as it should have. (In another recent interview, he even said that while being a “one-woman man” is his “personal” choice, he wouldn’t “judge” friends who have multiple partners at once. !?!?) The left also has a singular ability to prey upon the soft-hearted, even those who, like Harry, are natively intelligent. Their rhetoric is calculated to appeal to “nice” people, who are content to defer to the “experts” and go along with whatever seems to make the most people feel good.  Harry Connick, Jr. wasn’t their first dupe, and he won’t be the last.
“I knew it!” my Protestant readers conclude triumphantly. “Catholics are cultural sell-outs who stink at preparing their young for the culture wars! Protestant Bible ed FTW!” Maybe there’s a little truth to that, but let’s not be too hasty. This is just Part II of the series, after all.

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  • SGY,
    Great post. I thought this was wise:
    “The left also has a singular ability to prey upon the soft-hearted, even those who, like Harry, are natively intelligent.”
    I also suspect that hanging around Hollywood and its culture for as long as he has wasn’t good for his “soft-hearted” nature. I’m sure he’s met many individual gay folk who he likes and maybe even has become friendly with over the years and so without a strong ethical worldview, he falls back on emotive Christianity that causes him all sorts of moral confusion.
    Meanwhile, I couldn’t agree more that he’s a major talent. I’m going to have to check out his newest album.

  • Thanks. It’s funny that he’s known as “Harsh Harry,” but underneath that dry, witty exterior, he’s a big ole softie. What’s interesting to me though is how intellectual he is about his music, yet not so much when it comes to cultural savvy. He analyzes a performance with this amazing, almost scientific precision. So, again, this isn’t about native smarts because Harry clearly has that in spades. What I think happens to people like him is that they make a principle out of being softies on certain issues. Once they decide “x is kindest, best, noblest, loftiest, etc.,” then critical thinking goes out the window. And I think you nailed it when you said that he’s cultivated a lot of friendships with gays in the business. I mentioned Ellen, and he’s always talking about what good friends they are. So there’s one right there. But it would take someone way more tough-minded than Harry on this issue to steadfastly eschew all possible appearances of legitimizing homosexual personalities.

  • Lydia

    The thing about being intellectual, confident, and willing to be harsh in the musical area but not in cultural areas makes perfect sense to me, psychologically. He knows he is a musical expert. He was a child prodigy, has been a musical genius all his life, and his parents made sure he got an excellent musical education. He regards that as a matter of expertise, and a matter where he has that expertise, so he’s willing to stand up confidently to pressure and even be brutally honest. But many moral issues he regards, presumably, as more subjective, so he lacks that confidence and is willing to let his moral intuitions go in the prevailing direction.

  • Agreed, although I documented those few interesting cases where he came out and said “This creeps me out and I don’t like it.” I think there are a couple reasons for that. One, he’s a father, so that’s given him some good instincts (as Lopez noticed). Secondly, that gentlemanly Southern upbringing he has still remains with him to the extent that there’s a certain recoiling at blatant filth there. A lingering sense that this is not appropriate, this isn’t proper. He’s said, “I have pretty good judgment about what’s crass or lewd or inappropriate.” Pretty good is about right.

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