Arts&Culture2, ArtsandCulture, Feb2017
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Unsung Hero

Max Martin, born Karl Martin Sandberg, is a Swedish producer and songwriter with a penchant for writing hooks—although to call his habit of writing smash hits a “penchant” is to put it lightly.

Martin has accrued over 50 Billboard Top 10 hits in his career. (Correctly) described by John Seabrook as a “Hit Song Factory,” Martin is surpassed in number one hits only by Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Listening to the radio on any given night, it’s likely three of his songs might play in a row.

Martin’s contributions to pop music cannot be understated; he is in the business of creating hit songs, and his hits are in the business of creating superstars. His career took off after he wrote “…Baby One More Time” for Britney Spears. He went on to write for some of the most beloved pop icons of our childhood, including Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, defining their careers with songs like “I Want It That Way” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and—perhaps more saliently—changing pop music.

Since then, he’s collaborated with many of the biggest pop artists in the world, racking up co-writing and production credits on some of their biggest albums, including, but by no means limited to, albums for Taylor Swift (Red, 1989), Katy Perry (all), Ariana Grande (Dangerous Woman), Jessie J, The Weeknd (The Beauty Behind the Madness), Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato (Confident), Selena Gomez (Revival), P!nk (I’m Not Dead, Funhouse), Avril Lavigne (Goodbye Lullaby), Ke$ha (Warrior), Kelly Clarkson (Breakaway), Maroon 5, and Celine Dion.

Most recently, he topped the charts with The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side,” Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” and Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).”

It’s easy to pick a Max Martin song out of a lineup by its chorus. His hallmark is a refrain that is soaring and undeniably catchy. Awkward lyrics so wrought with emotion that they somehow work perfectly. They are reminiscent of the glam rock choruses we hear from bands like Kiss, whom Martin grew up listening to and whom undoubtedly shaped his taste for the kind of payoff we hear in his own choruses—vigorous, anthemic, climactic. Though he is relatively anonymous outside the industry, this formula has made him a giant within it.

That many of these stars are produced by a white, middle-aged, cisgender Swede—that, as Nathaniel Rich puts it, Katy Perry’s teenage dreams are actually Martin’s—says something about both Martin’s undeniable brilliance as a songwriter and pop music’s disturbing sonic homogeneity. His rise to pop prolificness is at least partly the result of a remarkable ability to shapeshift. In one breath, he co-writes and produces rock songs for Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. In the next, he writes for Britney Spears. Just two months into 2017, the charts are already dominated by overwhelmingly white, straight, young Anglophones. Hopes for more diversity in pop music are further squandered by Martin’s ubiquity.

The expanse of Martin’s work and his influence on pop music makes it hard to argue with those who claim that all pop music sounds the same. At best, those who subscribe to this critique dismiss pop as commercial enterprise devoid of meaning; at worst, it’s a manifestation of white supremacy and sexism.

But pop music, like all art, is ever-changing. As it stands, it is an obvious oligarchy, but many artists are beginning to diversify their teams and, importantly, their sound (take Rihanna’s Anti, for instance), fundamentally challenging the Martin brand of pop that has dominated the charts for the last two decades. Songs like “Good For You” by Selena Gomez foretell this shift, though subtly. The chorus is no longer the song’s climax—at least, not in the way it has usually been. It lacks the enthusiastic energy of Martin pop, instead burning slowly, steeped in ambient bass and RnB percussion. There is a nudge where there used to be an exclamation.

Maybe not all pop music sounds the same, but even the most devout pop consumers must concede that, for the last two decades, most pop music has sounded like Max Martin, either because he wrote it or because it was made in his image. For the last two decades, Max Martin has been the unassailable King of Pop. Perhaps 2017 will be the year that sees him dethroned.

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