The King of Pop

Have you ever heard of a Swedish guy named Max Martin? No? Well, he is only the most successful and influential pop music producer of the past 25 years. Let’s get introduced to the King of Pop in disguise.

We all know this moment when a casual garden party turns into a time travel through our recent history of pop music. I Want It That Way, Hit Me Baby One More Time, I Kissed a Girl, Shake It Off, I Can’t Feel My Face, Blinding Lights… Only by reading those titles, many of us can recall the songs instantly and their melodies pop up in our heads. Some of us might even get the image of Britney Spears dancing in the school hallway or the Backstreet Boys posing dramatically at the airport. Well, probably everyone knows that it was not the 16-year old Britney who actually wrote the song that made her become the most famous teenager in the western sphere and later on the most successful musician of the 2000s. However, something that much fewer people know: all those songs mentioned above, performed by different artists and released in different years or even decades, have one thing in common – the person who created them, Max Martin.

It was 1971 when the Swede Karl Martin Sandberg was born in Stockholm. Even though he grew up in this golden age of Swedish music when ABBA became the most popular band around the world, nobody could know that the person who is (at least a bit better) known as Max Martin would be the most successful producer of pop music one day. However, his success didn’t come out of nowhere. Already as a child, Max Martin encountered the world of music as a student of Sweden’s public music education program. Later on, as a teenager, he sang for a couple of bands before he dropped out of high school to focus on his music career as the singer and frontman of the funk-metal band “It’s Alive”. Eventually, the band wasn’t really successful but the more important thing was, that their second album was produced by Cheiron Studios, the label of the Swedish DJ and producer Denniz PoP, who was meant to see Max Martins potential for writing pop songs. PoP became Martin’s mentor, hired him for his label and soon they were producing songs together. When PoP died due to cancer in 1998, Max Martin already had it, the key to the ears of generations. It started with the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and it’s gonna end who knows where and when. So far there is no end in sight.

Max Martin, Foto: Martina Huber | Wikimedia LCC

Already for more than 2 decades his sounds are dominating the charts and influencing the pop music culture. Unless your name is Sleeping Beauty, you are born after 2010 or you belong to an indigenous tribe living in the South American rain forest (what in turn would make me wonder how you did get access to this article), it’s likely that you have heard more than a hundred of his songs. Everybody by The Backstreet Boys, Tearin’ Up My Heart by *NSYNC, Oops!… I Did It Again by Britney Spears, Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson, Whataya Want from Me by Adam Lambert, Raise Your Glass by Pink, Dark Horse by Katy Perry, Blank Space by Taylor Swift, Can’t Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake, No Tears Left to Cry by Ariana Grande, Save your Tears by The Weeknd… the list is endless! To this day, Max Martin has written or co-written 24 Billboard Hot 100 number-one songs, most of them he has also produced. Only music legends Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26) have written more number-one hits than him.

How come that I’ve never heard his name before, you might ask. Well, obviously, if not the same person, in most cases the writer or producer of a song will not get as much attention as the person you see performing it on MTV or YouTube. In Martin’s case, it’s a lot about his personality as well. He is rarely talking about himself. The interviews he gave during his career can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He never was a stage hog, never ostentatious, even though he probably could be. Max Martin isn’t just a good songwriter and producer, he also is a good singer. Usually, he is recording the demo tapes by himself. The Backstreet Boys once said he could have recorded all their songs with his own voice and it would have been a perfect record. There are producers that take their share of the spotlight cake too – Timbaland might be a good example – but not so Max Martin. Maybe also because he knows too well how this society works. Let’s be honest, people want to believe in this one superior person with the voice of an angel that is writing its own songs and is probably just an amazing human being in general. The Swede retains this illusion to us by staying in the background, as every good ghostwriter would do, and that’s also appreciated by the “stars”.

But how can it be possible to produce one hit after another for a quarter of a century? The answer might be that People like Max Martin not only understand music, first of all, they understand humans. We still don’t know for sure why exactly music can have such strong effects on our emotions, but a connection to some of our oldest survival mechanisms in the primitive limbic circuits of our brain seems more than likely. There are many theories on how music works. A promising one, that already dates back to 1956, highlights the importance of our expectations and predictions, and if they get met or not. Music is no longer the expression of the artist, it’s a science, applied math, with equations and variables. John Seabrook, the author of the book “Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory”, found out that the Swede purposely changes major and minor chords to make happy songs sound sad and sad songs sound happy – it adds excitement. Nowadays, everything is about attention and attention span as well, that’s why every 7 seconds a song needs an element of surprise. Fast passages have to alternate with slow ones in order to keep the listener attentive. When Martin plays a new song to someone, he cares less about his opinion than about his posture, mimics and gestures while listening to the song.

Whatever it is, that makes us want to listen to a song over and over again, either consciously or unconsciously, Max Martin understands it to a really high extent. He is creating the sonic cocktail we need, to feel the emotions we want. Admittedly, it has a bitter aftertaste to know that a single person is able to have such an impact on our lives. It is scary because it reveals how primitive and suggestable we still are, even though we think we are all so individual. After all, deep inside us, we are still animals, and if a well-made TV commercial, a half-naked model on the front page of a magazine or a Max Martin song presses the right buttons, there will be a reaction in us, whether we want or not. With that in mind, we should possibly be more cautious about what we expose ourselves to, but hey, let’s stop that seriousness for a second, open the music platform of your choice, search for “Baby One More Time”, press play, and well, enjoy!

Christopher Machold


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