Some contests are decided by popular vote. Some are scored according to measurable criteria. Some are judged. Now, judging might be tempered by set criteria, but in the end it is a purely subjective matter. I'm a firm believer that for those contests that are judged, a judge should never have to explain a decision. In this unnecessarily long and rambly post, I'm about to demonstrate why.
Now, before I begin let me make it perfectly clear that I very much approve of the judging method used in SpinTunes. The theory here is that by having each judge rank the contestants and then taking the aggregate, what you wind up with is as close to a perfect compromise as you can get. Differences of opinion should average out, and general consensus should be magnified. By this I mean that entries that are generally acknowledged to be good should move to the top, while entries that are of the "you either love it or hate it" (LIoHI) variety should wind up somewhere in the middle of the pack with more consistently average entries. Below-par entries should wind up at the bottom.
SpinTunes is a little unusual in that the judges have chosen (correction: they were told) to critique each and every entry. This gives us some insight into what they're thinking (or what they think they're thinking). What we've seen in the first round of SpinTunes is that, just as the competitors move into the "undefined space" for expression of their creativity; so do judges move into that same space for the expression of their criteria. They carry with them criteria that aren't published in the challenge, and these vary from judge to judge.
I'm not implying that's a bad thing... it's just a fact of judging that it's a matter of personal taste. Contestants simply need to understand that and not take any decision personally. The reason I don't think a judge should have to explain a decision is because it then pressures them to think of justifications for those decisions, and those justifications aren't necessarily consistent, nor do they necessarily make sense; and in some cases they expose where flaws exist in the judges' thinking rather than the entry. Better to simply say, "this one didn't impress me," and leave it at that.
Let's take an example of how the SpinTunes judging system works in practice. I've said often that Edric Haleen has been under-rated in prior contests. In this round, he placed first, and not by a small margin. Yet, he was ranked at the top by only a single judge, Heather Zink. How can that happen? Well, each of the other judges' top picks were ranked significantly lower by the other judges, either because of the "LIoHI factor" or because of some apparent differences of opinion regarding whether the song met the criteria. For instance, Niveous' top pick was Jenny Katz's song, "Blofeld's Beginnings". While this a very good song, was not written in the first person, and wound up near the bottom on 3 out of five judges' lists.
For what it's worth, had I been judging, it wouldn't have mattered how good the song is if it simply didn't meet the challenge; it would have wound up at or near the bottom. In Song Fu, however, Ken Plume would put out the challenge and it didn't really matter if you even attempted to meet it... even when people submitted instrumentals in response to lyrical challenges, he would put it out for votes anyway and let the audience deal with it. I saw that as a weakness of Song Fu. These are completely different approaches to judging the results. Niveous is evidently very forgiving when it comes to meeting the challenges... he deducts for not meeting the challenge (though not much, to be sure) and then ranks the songs according to remaining merit. I won't even begin to say that either approach is "wrong" because a judge shouldn't ever have to explain himself. In fact, I could possibly re-evaluate my own stand on "disqualify vs deduct" as the rounds progress. My opinion's not frozen in stone.
Now, if you chart the judges' scores and sort by aggregate rank (as I've done, so you don't have to), you notice immediately that consistently high-scorers float to the top, consistently low-scorers sink to the bottom, and the middle is dominated by the controversial and middle-of-the-road entries. Not to pick on anybody, but I'll offer JoAnn Abbott's "Why" as an example of the middle-of-the-road, and Kevin Savino-Riker's "Tough Jobs vs. Iron Gates" as an example of LIoHI. So what we see in practice is what we predict, which I'd say is a pretty good system, which works whether you explain yourself or not.
I'm a bit intrigued by some of the comments, though... and keep in mind that the judges approaches are what they are, and are really should be immune to criticism, and that I don't necessarily disagree with everything that ANY of the judges said. There are five judges, each reviewing 20 competitors. There's no way I'm going to take each in detail. I'm simply cherry-picking some notable statements.
First, I was surprised that the judges critiqued the shadows, as they didn't have to. But it was cool that they did so and the comments were generally on point. I mostly mention this because of something I first noticed when I read Heather's comment on "Firestorm": Heather wasn't familiar with the characters. BUT... she obviously used a search engine and found out a thing or two about Firestorm and Multiplex, including the fact that Multiplex is unique in that his "first person" is PLURAL... which made this shadow spot on the challenge, even if it sounds odd at first. I found this to be generally true of all of Heather's comments; she takes a very studious approach to her reviews, doing her best to understand the characters as intended by the composer. As a result, you find that Heather's rankings are very different from everyone else's. It seems to me that Heather scored based on production values she could imagine applied to each song rather than what was actually delivered.
Jules, OTOH, didn't understand understand "Firestorm" because she didn't know the characters and didn't look it up. No biggie... this is a shadow and she didn't need to. But it DOES highlight a disagreement we have regarding how a song of this sort needs to be structured. I'm commenting about this here because Jules stated so forcefully and directly (and repeatedly) that a song needs to stand alone, without a guide.
I disagree... largely (but not solely) because this is inconsistently applied. For instance, a song mentions Superman. That's OK, because we all know about Superman. But is that "standing alone"? HELL no, because we know about Superman from 72 years of pop-culture... comic books, movies, television shows, lunchboxes, cartoons, and even novels. That's the complete antithesis of "standing alone". I think that to be consistent, you simply have to allow some leeway for the lesser-known or brand-new characters that are allowed under the published rules, especially since the published rules allow you to identify that character in an accompanying email. I don't agree with marking down someone for doing exactly what they were told they could do in the challenge announcement.
If you read Jules' review, I think it's evident that "Superman Sneezed" scored the full 20 points from Jules' as much because of what she brought into it from that wealth of external lore as is was because of what the song itself contained. None of the other judges gave it more than 13 points.
The "no-guide" rule presumes that we're listening to pop songs that would theoretically be heard for the first time in isolation on the radio, devoid of context, but I see no stipulation in the contest rules to support that presumption, and feel absolutely no need to impose it on the songwriter. For instance, I love the music in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog", even though every last song would fail the "no-guide" criterion, if it were applied. Still, it won an Emmy.
Personally, I think it's OK for a song to make some assumptions about what the audience should know about the character, and then bring something new and interesting to that character within the song. For instance, take a song about 'Beamcaster', whom you don't know from Adam's housecat (because I just made him up). In isolation, you don't know anything about him except that he's some kind of hero (or villain), and that he's got some kind of emotional issues that he's working through. So superficially, if you bring in some imagined rule that the song should stand alone, this would score horribly. But drop it into a musical play where that backstory has just played out, and the exact same song delivered in exactly the same way may blow your socks off. I would personally allow the songwriter the small bit of leeway it takes to compete creatively in even a tiny way with an established character like Superman; and... as a matter of fact, that's exactly what Edric Haleen did. He provided no more background than I just did for 'Beamcaster'. Edric's character doesn't even have a name, which was a stipulation (an unnecessary one, IMHO, as it's artistically important for him not to have one here). Yet "A Letter To Humanity" wound up at the top of the list because he ranked high on every judge's list.
If it appears that I'm picking on Jules, I do it only because I know that she knows how to disagree without being disagreeable, and because she knows that no matter how forcefully I express MY opinion, I don't think less of hers. Many of her remarks are spot-on and have my full agreement. Besides, judges don't need to explain.
The comments about Bram Tant's "Kebab Shop" were fascinating, on everybody's part. To put it in perspective, the points awarded to this song were 13 (Heather), 1 (Niveous), 15 (Jules), 2 (Joe), and 4 (Sammy). Clearly it's close to the LIoHI category, just as Bram predicted when he submitted it, with Heather and Jules in the "love it" (or at least, the "appreciated it") camp, and Niveous and Joe in the "hate it" camp. Niveous, Joe, and Sammy all commented that it's not a song. Sammy's comments were probably the most intriguing, as he's in the "LOVE IT!" camp, but scored it at the bottom for failing to meet the challenge by not having a super-enough villain, and not being a song. The song-vs-rant bit perked my ears up in memory of Song Fu 6, Round 2, in which Inverse Clown entered a completely spoken rant (without even the benefit of a sung "Allah akhbar") which received similar criticism. As I supported Inverse then, I'll maintain the trend and support Bram now. It's a song. Did it meet the challenge? Well, that's completely dependent on how villainous you have to be to be a "supervillain". the Joker has no powers, nor does most of Batman's rogue's gallery. Lex Luthor has no powers, but he's pretty damned evil. That said, I don't ever recall him deliberately poisoning people and following them to their homes to finish them off personally. That's a whole different class of evil. Is a super-villain defined by the quality of hero that hunts him down? Or is he simply defined someone who is above the level of evil normally encountered in the world we know? I'm not sure I'm ready to close the door on the Kebab Shop.
I quite like Joe's method of commenting. Very short, with a minimum of explanation and just a few stand out features (good or bad) about each song. Joe knows that he doesn't have to explain, because a) he's a judge; and b) he's Joe 'Covenant' Lamb. Double whammy. Like Niveous, Joe seems to deduct, but not disqualify, if a song fails to completely meet the challenge. Joe seems to put more emphasis on the production quality than the other judges. I know this is a songwriting competition, so the quality of the song should theoretically trump the production, but you still do have to at least get the idea across to the judges. To that extent, production does and should matter.
Despite anything I've said here, I disagree with none of the judges' opinions. They're opinions, and final, and not arguable. I also have no problem with the final rankings. I'm jazzed to be hearing a lot of great new music from friends old and new, and hope it goes on like this for the remaining rounds, and for future competitions.
So what does all this mean to competitors? Well, if everybody's telling you the same thing, then you'd probably better listen. But judging is subjective, and you're unlikely to please everyone at once. So don't put too much emphasis on any one judge's opinion or review.
You already know that just as you all interpret these challenges differently, the judges also interpret them in their own ways. Please, please, please, people, assess these challenges as you see them. Do what makes you feel happy. Keep taking chances, trying new things, and sticking your necks out. If you're happy with it, that's what matters.
Now, here's a question I have for Travis Langworthy... JoAnn Abbot and Kevin Savino-Riker have the same number of points from the judges. They also have the same number of popular votes. So it falls to YOU, sir... what's the proper order for these two entries?
UPDATE: The answer to the question for Travis is that it's JoAnn, then Kevin, as announced here. Also, I jokingly mentioned that I toyed with the idea of ranking the judges. I was told I should... and I started to... but after thinking about it I decided against it. Judges' decisions are final, and none should even apparently carry more weight than another. There are no "good" judges and no "bad" judges. That's my final ranking.