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!)
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.
“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:
Night-time makes room for the day
Treasure her love ’til the day you die
And never give it away…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OzE1fk-T9Q?rel=0&w=560&h=315 (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.)
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?”)
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.
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:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bSYVbQDH8g?rel=0&start=103&end=172&w=500&h=315 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
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
[…] 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
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*).