'Idol' contestant's botched performance doesn't have a happy ending

On Sunday, 10 of this season’s American Idol semifinalists teamed with celebrities for all-star duets in front of a live audience at L.A. Wiltern Theater, and it was a challenge that separated the amateurs from the pros. Some contestants surprisingly held their own next to big names like Pat Benatar, Jason Mraz, Shaggy, and Brett Young. But others showed their lack of experience and floundered, either giddily fanboying/fangirling next to their idols, or just being easily intimidated.

But no one floundered as egregiously as poor Shawn Robinson, who was paired with Elle King for a “Proud Mary” performance that seemed doomed from the start.

Shy, smiley sweetheart Shawn was a total mismatch for a rough-and-ready alt-rawk badass like Elle, and when they attempted to rehearse the boisterous Tina Turner version of the CCR classic — a song Shawn freely admitted he would’ve never chosen for himself — it was a struggle. A well-meaning Elle then made the last-minute executive decision to switch to a slower version, and Shawn understandably panicked. (Was the show trying to sabotage him? American Idol conspiracy theorists, please don your tinfoil hats now…)

Even with the tempo switch, which allowed Shawn to keep up with festival veteran Elle, the song was still all wrong for Shawn’s chirpy, cutesy voice. Onstage, they lacked the chemistry of some of the night’s other, more successful duets, but that wasn’t this couple’s main issue. The real problem came when Shawn lost his place, jumped in too early, and missed an entire line, which threw off the performance and led to an awkward moment of silence while the duo regained their footing. Elle looked vexed but was supportive, and Shawn rebounded admirably quickly. (His signature smile never left his face, and Elle later told him the way he handled the situation was a “pro move.”) But it was still impossible not to notice the flub.

Host Ryan Seacrest praised Elle and Shawn for being “in it together.” Judge Lionel Richie told Shawn, “You took care of business. I love the way you recovered.” Luke Bryan showed empathy, telling Shawn, “I’m in the multiple-mistakes-a-night category myself.” So, Shawn remained optimistic that he’d get a reprieve, telling Ryan, “I had a slip-up, and it’s up to the judges now.” But ultimately, the episode was too packed with talent, so Shawn was one of the three contestants sent home at the end of the evening.

Sunday’s other two eliminated singers were bubbly subway busker Bumbly and indie chanteuse Kate Barnette. The former was neither a surprise nor a disappointment. During her “Angel” duet with Shaggy, Bumbly seemed more like the reggae superstar’s background singer than his equal partner, and the judges spent most of their critique airtime telling Bumbly how much “fun” it looked like she was having (it’s always a bad omen when the judges using the “F-word” that much).

However, I’d had high hopes for Kate, who — after coming out of nowhere during Hollywood Week and showcasing her quirky cool-girl style on last week’s top 20 night — seemed positioned to be Season 17’s dark horse. A club performer in her late twenties, she’d always seemed so much more seasoned than many of the other contestants. But when she was paired with rock goddess Pat Benatar for the uncharacteristically fiery “Heartbreaker,” for the first time ever, Kate looked like a rank amateur. She didn’t have the attitude nor what judge Katy Perry called the “teeth in her voice” to match powerhouse Pat (“I can’t teach that to you,” lamented Lionel), and while it was nice of Pat’s husband and artistic partner Neil Giraldo to suggest that Kate take on the guitar solo — her first solo ever! — she was clearly out of her depth. Most of the time Kate just grinned goofily, like she could not believe her luck to be sharing a stage with Pat and Neil. But sadly, Kate’s luck ran out Sunday. (Side note to producers: Can Pat Benatar be an Idol judge next year, please?)

Below are the seven Sunday contestants who made it through to the top 14. Ten more contestants will compete Monday night.

Walker Burroughs with Jason Mraz, “Have It All”

Walker was definitely fanboying hard over Jason (the first song he ever performed was “I’m Yours”), but while he was awkward onstage, he was not nervous. Taking Jason’s advice to embrace his awkwardness as part of his charm, he confidently gave it his all. Personally, Walker’s dork-dancing annoyed me — it actually reminded of Katy’s disastrous “Bon Appetit” performance on SNL — but vocally, he nailed it. Luke was impressed by Walker’s harmonies on the tricky roundabout segment of the song and said these two were “meant to be together,” while Lionel called this a “perfect performance.”

Riley Thompson with Brett Young, “Like I Loved You”

Sixteen-year-old Riley failed to connect to the angsty lyrics of “Jolene” last week, so I doubted she’d be able to interpret Brett’s “painful song with a little bit of anger” — especially since this was her first duet ever and first time singing harmonies. But aside from a little bit of pageant-girl smiley-ness, she handled this like a champ, really locking in with Brett and showing off mature new elements of her girlish voice. “Where’s this been?” exclaimed Luke, who said this was Riley’s best performance so far. Lionel told her, “You have grown exponentially. … You are handling this pressure so well.”

Uché with Shaggy, “I Need Your Love”

Shaggy met his match here. These two big flashy personalities were totally vibing — they even had choreography, and at times Shaggy almost seemed like Uché’s hypeman as he rapped Uché’s easily toastable name. This was the first duet of night where celebrity was upstaged, because Uché was not at all intimidated. (Does anything intimidate Uché?) The audience was eating it up, and Uché played to the crowd like star, climactically tossing his Boy George hat for a lucky audience member to catch. The judges noted some of Uché’s minor vocal shortcomings, but I was too busy being entertained to notice.

Madison Vandenburg with Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, “We Belong”

Madison is a decade younger than Kate, but she was able to rise to the level of this rock power couple. She had the pipes to match “world-class belter” Pat (“You don’t know how to hit a wrong note,” Luke told Madison), and this sentimental ballad, written during a time when Pat and Neil were expecting their first child, played to all of Madison’s strengths. “Back in the day when we started, we never could have done what you just did,” marveled Lionel.

Ashley Hess with Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours”

Jason was a generous and respectful duet partner, allowing Ashley to change the arrangement of his most popular song. “I’m thrilled to hear it reinvented,” he said. So was I! This was spectacular, with Ashley transforming a jolly little hippie ditty into something deep and weighty and tender. I do wish she had stayed at her piano the entire time, because this became a typical duet halfway through once she stood up — but that first minute was magic. And it proved that Ashely is a real artist and the real deal. Katy called this performance “fresh” and “in sync” and “totally locked in.” Said Luke, “It just felt real right.”

Laci Kaye Booth with Brett Young, “Mercy”

This was another rare example of a contestant outshining the celebrity. Laci was completely connected with Brett, tapping into the song’s sorrow with every aching note. Channel-surfers could have landed on ABC at this moment and easily mistaken it for the ACM Awards airing at the same time on CBS. “I actually thought it was watching a serious love affair on the stage,” said Lionel. Katy went a step further, saying Laci is her new favorite and raving, “I thought I was watching something on the Grammys — Best New Artist.”

Laine Hardy with Elle King, “The Weight”

This Elle King duet was a smashing success that made up for that Shawn Robinson debacle. These two shared sizzling chemistry — Elle seemed genuinely stoked to be onstage with Laine, singing one of her favorite songs (and Laine’s audition song) — and their riffing at the performance’s end felt so natural and cool. If I didn’t know anything about these singers, it would have been near-impossible for me to tell which one was the established artist and which one was the contestant. “You look like a rock star. You sound like a rock star,” said Katy.

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