By Jay Bobbin
"Don't judge" is a popular phrase these days, but judging is the whole reason Harry Connick Jr. is joining "American Idol."
The Grammy- and Emmy-winning music star has appeared during past rounds of the Fox singing contest, but he becomes a full-fledged member of the panel as he joins returnees Jennifer Lopez (back after a season away) and Keith Urban for twice-weekly Season 13 telecasts starting Wednesday. Ryan Seacrest continues as host, with Randy Jackson moving into the role of "in-house mentor."
"Other than performing, it's kind of the best gig," the friendly Connick reasons. "I don't get to sing or play, but I get to be around music ... and it's live television, which is really an exciting medium for me. It's not like being on a talk show, but having input into things as they happen. It's kind of like being onstage, really, just a great mix of the different things I like to do."
Connick says the talent he's seen while taping the audition episodes -- in locales from San Francisco and Salt Lake City to Detroit and Boston -- is "crazy. We saw hundreds of contestants, and as a fan of the show, I can honestly say there's a huge amount of talent this year. Just from a preliminary perspective, I think it's going to be hard for voters to choose."
Whoever the next hopeful to follow such "Idol" winners as Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Phillip Phillips and last season's Candice
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Glover turns out to be, Connick wants to steer someone's early career path positively.
"I have my own variances, just like Jennifer and Keith and Randy do," he acknowledges, "but I would like to think that some of the things I've learned over the years might be of help to these emerging performers."
Being a short-term mentor or guest judge worked well for Connick in his past "Idol" stints.
"I was always doing something else," he says. "I'd be on the road or doing a movie or whatever, and I'd come in to do a week, and it was really fun. It wouldn't have been possible (to have a bigger role) then, but when the call did come, we shuffled a few things around.
"It was something I wanted to do, and so far, it's lived up to what I thought it would be. I'm really having a great time. The reason the brand has become so big is that people know they're consistently going to be entertained and see great talent. I think this year, it's going to return to all the ideals people have about the show."
While he has his own experience to bring to "American Idol," New Orleans native Connick knows he's servicing others at the same time -- viewers as well as the amateur singers who are being judged.
"It's like when you watch football," he reasons, "and (ESPN analyst) Jon Gruden is talking about these complex plays. I don't know what he's talking about, but when he takes a minute to identify and explain them, it's empowering because it makes me appreciate the game a little more. It doesn't have to be overly clinical.
"I think the audience likes to learn," adds Connick, "and specificity is the key to that. We all have opinions, but what makes us judges is that our opinions are coupled with some things that are objective. Sure, it boils down to what moves you and what you like ... but along the way, I think there are certain specifics that can be passed along that will not only help the contestants but also help the audience understand the process."
(On the cover: Harry Connick Jr. is a judge on "American Idol," which returns Wednesday on Fox.)