Harry Connick, Jr. Talks How ‘American Idol’ Was “A Little Off”

Harry Connick, Jr. knew exactly what to say as an American Idol mentor. Last season he gave pointed criticism, the sort of feedback that some call “a little hard” to hear, like when he cut finalist Amber Holcomb short. “Tell me what this tune is about, in two sentences,” he said, before he proceeded to ask her about individual lyrics. But it was hard to argue with his results, particularly how Holcomb would later sing as if she wrote the song herself.

Now a judge, Connick promises to be just as articulate. When PEOPLE asked what he and host Ryan Seacrest thought of last season, though, Connick instead chose to be diplomatic. “It was a little bit off, but this year it’s going to get back on track but it’s got to be about the contestants,” he said. “I think we are all concerned about finding the best contestant.”

“A little bit off” is an understatement. Judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey had bickered to the point where show executives decided to not hire more than one female judge for this season. (“Clean your ears out,” Minaj once said, with Carey’s mother in the audience. Later, Carey would call Minaj “Satan.”) “The judges are so fun and they are having such a good time and they are getting along so well that I think you will see your old American Idol back on the air,” Seacrest said.

Still, at least Connick seems to have a plan mapped out for next season, which starts January 15. “You have to be specific. You can’t tell people ‘I didn’t like it.’ You have to tell them why,” he says. “It’s hard to do that if you don’t have a lot of background in actually playing an instrument and performing, and that is what I do, so it’s very easy for me to pull from personal experience [and explain] why people aren’t doing as well as they could and help them get to the next level, because they are young.”

Below, re-visit one of Connick’s finest moments from last season, when he guided the final four contestants through singing standards.