By John Seabrook http://www.newyorker.com 9/30/15
Among the stranger aspects of recent pop music history is how so many of the biggest hits of the past twenty years—by the Backstreet Boys, ’NSync, and Britney Spears to Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and the Weeknd—have been co-written by a forty-four-year-old Swede. His real name is Karl Martin Sandberg, but you would know him as Max Martin, if you know of him at all, which, if he can help it, you won’t. He is music’s magic melody man, the master hooksmith behind no fewer than twenty-one No. 1 Billboard hits—five fewer than John Lennon, and eleven sternward of Paul McCartney, on the all-time list. But, while Lennon and McCartney are universally acknowledged as geniuses, few outside the music business have heard of Max Martin.
Presumably this is because Martin writes all of his songs for other people to sing. The fame that Lennon and McCartney achieved by performing their work will never be his, which no doubt is fine with Martin. (He still gets the publishing.) He is the Cyrano de Bergerac of today’s pop landscape, the poet hiding under the balcony of popular song, whispering the tunes that have become career-making records, such as “… Baby One More Time,” for Britney Spears, “Since U Been Gone,” for Kelly Clarkson, and “I Kissed a Girl,” for Katy Perry. The songs he co-wrote or co-produced for Taylor Swift, which include her past eight hits (three from “Red” and five from “1989”), transformed her from a popular singer-songwriter into a stadium-filling global pop star. (The “1989” tour recently passed the hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar mark.)
Martin has thrived in the ghostwriter’s milieu, where the trick is to remain as anonymous as possible, because the public likes to believe that pop artists write their own songs. That the Swede happens to bring to the table an exceptionally large dollop of Jantelagen, the Scandinavian disdain for individual celebrity, makes him especially well-suited to his vocation.
Still, even for a Nordic, it is a powerful act of self-denial to forego the pleasure (and, yes, the fame and attendant adulation) of recording your own songs, and give all your beautiful tunes to other people, who become famous instead. This path is especially difficult when you possess a beautiful singing voice of your own, which Martin does. As one of his early collaborators, the Swedish artist E-Type, says in “The Cheiron Saga,” a 2008 Radio Sweden documentary about Martin and his former colleagues at Cheiron Studios, in Stockholm, “With his own demos, Max Martin singing himself, those would have sold ten million or more, but he wasn’t an artist; he didn’t want to be an artist.”
And yet Martin is known to insist that the artists he works with sing his songs exactly the way he sings them on the demos. In a sense, Spears, Perry, and Swift are all singing covers of Max Martin recordings. They are also among the few people in the world who have actually heard the originals. Countless self-proclaimed performers on YouTube sing Max Martin songs, but there is not a single publicly available video or audio recording of Martin performing his own stuff. (In the course of researching my book “The Song Machine,” I got to hear an actual Max Martin demo, for “… Baby One More Time,” when a record man who had it on his phone played it for me. The Swede sounded exactly like Spears.) Martin’s demos are the missing originals of our musical age—the blank space at the center of the past two decades of pop music.
Sandberg was born in Stenhamra, a suburb of Stockholm, in 1971. His father was a policeman. He later recalled the handful of recordings his parents had in their collection: Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic,” the best of Queen and Creedence Clearwater Revival, “the Beatles one where they look down from the balcony,” Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Put them all altogether and you’ve got Max Martin.
Sandberg’s older brother was a glam-rock fan, and “he brought home old Kiss cassettes,” Sandberg recalled, in a 2001 interview in Time magazine, which was the first and last time he took part in an English-language profile. Listening to those tapes made young Karl Martin Sandberg want to be a rock star. “I was a hard rocker at that time, and listened to nothing but Kiss,” he told the Swedish documentarian Fredrik Eliasson, in a follow-up to “The Cheiron Saga” that ran on Radio Sweden earlier this year. “I mean, nothing but Kiss. It was like we belonged to a cult: if you listened to anything else, then in principle you were being unfaithful.”
Sandberg learned music through Sweden’s excellent state-sponsored music-education programs, receiving free private lessons in the French horn. (Thirty per cent of Swedish schoolchildren go to publicly funded after-school music programs.) “I first began with the recorder in our community music school,” he remembered in a Radio Sweden interview. “After that I played horn, and participated in the school orchestra. I remember that I started playing brass not so much because I had a calling but because I thought it looked cool.” Eventually, he moved on to drums, then keyboard. He has credited Sweden’s musical-education system with his success, telling Eliasson, “I would not be standing in this place today if it weren’t for the public music school.”
In the mid-eighties, Sandberg became the front man and main songwriter of a glam-metal band called It’s Alive, adopting the stage name Martin White. In the video for the group’s song “Pretend I’m God,” White plays Jesus and enacts a pseudo-crucifixion, doing his best Ozzy Osbourne imitation. While the song must be considered a work of juvenilia, it does at least explain why eighties metal seems to lurk beneath the surface of so many of today’s pop hits.
But Sandberg had a terrible secret, one that he couldn’t share with the rest of the band. He loved pop music. At home, he listened to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” and the Bangles’s “Eternal Flame,” which he later told Time was an all-time favorite. “I couldn’t admit to my friends that I liked it,” he said.
In 1994, he met his mentor, a Swedish d.j. who called himself Denniz PoP and co-founded Cheiron Studios. (His real name was Dag Krister Volle; friends called him Dagge.) Denniz realized that Sandberg’s talents lay in songwriting, not performing, and showed him how to use the studio. Denniz was coming off the major hits he had produced for Ace of Base, “All That She Wants” and “The Sign”; one of Sandberg’s first production credits was on “Beautiful Life,” the group’s final hit. By then his mentor had renamed him Max Martin, a drab, forgettable disco name that is almost as bad as Denniz PoP.
Unlike Denniz, who neither wrote nor played music, Martin knew music theory and musical notation. “Martin was very schooled; he could read the notes, write partitions, and do musical arrangements,” E-Type says in “The Cheiron Saga.” “Dagge would say, ‘We need a new influence, so Martin, make us something pretty while E-Type and I run out for some sushi.’ We’d come back and find something so gorgeous that we both almost fell backwards.”
Martin worked by theory, Denniz by feel. “Dagge was driven by his instincts,” E-Type says in the documentary. “If there was something that worked, well, then, that’s what he’d do, always. Martin was the musician, and he got the principles around funk, and with those abilities was able to take it a step further.”
That next step was presented by a boy band that was unknown at the time, the Backstreet Boys. The songs Martin wrote for them, including “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” and the timeless “I Want It That Way,” made the group world-famous. They also created a template for the Max Martin sound, which combines ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, eighties arena rock’s big choruses, and early-nineties American R. & B. grooves. On top of all that is Sandberg’s gift for melody, which owes as much to Edvard Grieg’s dark Norwegian musical fable “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (a.k.a. the “Inspector Gadget” theme song) as to any contemporary influence. Like many of ABBA’s tunes, these Backstreet Boys songs use major and minor chords in surprising combinations (going to a minor chord on the chorus, say, when you least expect it), producing happy songs that sound sad, and sad songs that make you happy—tunes that serve a wide variety of moods.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that Sandberg and his Swedish colleagues enjoyed was their relative freedom from the racial underpinnings of the long-established American distinction between R. & B. and pop. Rhythm and blues, a term coined by the Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, back when he was a writer for Billboard, in the fifties, replaced the frankly racist category of “race records,” but the underlying race-based distinction remained: R. & B. was music by and for black people, whereas white performers were “pop,” even if their music was heavily indebted to R. & B. A white American songwriter composing R. & B. tunes was not likely to get very far on the balkanized pop-music scene in the U.S., but a Swedish writer, free of the racist legacy of the R. & B./pop dichotomy, could create music that combined both, and that is just what Martin has done. The resulting hybrid, one could argue, has become the mainstream sound on Top Forty radio today. SiriusXM’s recent rebranding of its pop channel, Venus, which now plays “rhythmic pop” (R. & P.?), is just one measure of this Swedish-led transformation.
The Backstreet Boys were on Jive Records, the label founded by the reclusive South African record man Clive Calder, who is, and for the foreseeable future will be, the richest man the record business has ever produced. (He cashed out of Jive and Zomba, his publishing company, for close to three billion dollars, in 2002.) So when, in 1997, Jive signed a young girl named Britney Spears and was looking for danceable pop songs, it naturally thought of Max Martin.
As it turned out, Martin had a song for Spears. He had composed it with Rami Yacoub, a Swedish-Moroccan beatmaker who was part of the Cheiron team. The song, initially called “Hit Me Baby (One More Time),” had been written for TLC, the three-woman R. & B. group. When Martin sent TLC a demo, which featured the Swede doing four-part harmonies all by himself, the trio had rejected it. Years later, T-Boz, the leader of the group, recalled the decision in a MTV interview: “I was like, I like the song, but do I think it’s a hit? Do I think it’s TLC? … Was I going to say, ‘Hit me, baby, one more time’? Hell, no!”
“Max, at that point in his career, thought he was writing an R. & B. song,” Steve Lunt, the Jive A. & R. man who was assigned to the Spears project, told me. “Whereas, in reality, he was writing a Swedish pop song. It was ABBA with a groove, basically.” There is a funky bass slap in the song that sounds urban, and on the demo Martin does that cowboy-sounding “owww” made famous by Cameo and beloved by Denniz PoP. “But all those chords are so European, how could that possibly be an American R. & B. song?” Lunt continued. “No black artist was going to sing it.” He added, “But that was the genius of Max Martin. Without being fully aware of it, he’d forged a brilliant sound all his own, and within a few weeks every American producer was desperately scrambling to emulate it.”
When TLC rejected the song, Martin offered it to Robyn, the Swedish artist, but nothing came of that, either. After meeting Spears in New York, he went back to Stockholm, worked on the song a little more to tailor it for Spears, made a copy, and mailed it to Jive. (Although his career as a performer was over, Martin still looked like Martin White, the hirsute glam-metal front man, and his appearance initially alarmed Spears, who said, “I thought he was from Mötley Crüe or something.”) All the hooks in the song were worked up to their finished state, but most of the verses were unfinished, often mere vowel sounds. There was no bridge yet, because, as Lunt put it, “Max would say, ‘If you don’t like the song by then, fuck you’—in his polite Swedish way, of course.” When the demo reached Jive, everyone thought, “Holy shit, this is perfect,” according to Lunt.
“Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” is a song about obsession, and it takes all of two seconds to hook you, not once but twice, first with the swung triplet “Da nah nah” and then with that alluring growl-purr that Spears emits with her first line (following Martin’s trace vocal): “Oh, baby, bay-bee.” Then the funky Cheiron backbeat kicks in, with drums that sound like percussion grenades. Next comes Tomas Lindberg’s wah-wah guitar lines, which signal to one’s inner disco hater that it can relax: it’s a rock song, after all.
And yet the vocal hook, irresistible as it was, sounded odd. You weren’t sure it was O.K. to sing it out loud. It was hard to imagine that anyone for
whom English is a first language would write the phrase “Hit me, baby” without intending it as an allusion to domestic violence or S & M. That was the furthest thing from the minds of the gentle Swedes, who were only trying to use up-to-the-minute lingo. Jive, concerned that Americans might get the wrong idea, changed the title to “… Baby One More Time.”
The song was Martin’s first Billboard No. 1. “I don’t really think we understood what we had done,” he says in “The Cheiron Saga.” “I actually remember that specific moment; I remember sitting in the studio when they called me to let me know that my song had made No. 1 in the U.S.A. And that was incredible, but I also remember that I had so much going on with everything else right then, I didn’t really grasp the meaning of it.”
Although Martin may be sui generis, he is by no means the only disciple of Denniz PoP to go on to chart-topping success. Others, including Andreas Carlsson, Jörgen Elofsson, and Per Magnusson, also have long track records of hits; they’ve been especially successful with U.K. boy bands. According to Marie Ledin, the managing director of the Polar Music Prize, Sweden’s musical Nobel, Swedish songwriters and producers were partly responsible for a quarter of all Billboard Top Ten hits in 2014, an astonishing accomplishment for a country of fewer than ten million people. Clearly, there is more at work here than individual genius. Apart from the country’s musical-education system, what qualities and characteristics make Swedes so good at producing pop songs?
Generally speaking, there is a flowing melodic element in Swedish folk songs and hymns (the national anthem, “Thou Ancient, Thou Free,” even sounds a bit like a pop song) that has rooted itself in the sensibility of many a musical Swede. More specifically, the relative computer literacy of the population, combined with the country’s excellent broadband infrastructure, has allowed Swedes to excel at making music on computers, and collaborating with other composers over the Internet, which has become the standard method of pop songwriting today. Added to that is Sweden’s xenophilia—its love of other cultures, in particular Anglo-American cultures. In Sweden, American TV isn’t translated into the local language, as it is in France and Italy, say, and the music you hear on the radio is more likely to be sung in English than Swedish. More than ninety per cent of Swedes speak English.
But, while knowing English is clearly an advantage to songwriters and producers seeking success in the U.S. and the U.K., a lack of facility with the finer points of the language is equally important. Swedish writers are not partial to wit, metaphor, or double entendre, songwriting staples from Tin Pan Alley through the Brill Building era. They are more inclined to fit the syllables to the sounds—a working method that Martin calls “melodic math”—and not worry too much about whether the resulting lines make sense. (The verses in “I Want It That Way,” for example, completely contradict the meaning of the chorus lines.) Fans of Cole Porter may see this development in roughly in the same spirit that “Downton Abbey” fans might view “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”—with horror—but one can argue that this very freedom from having to make sense lyrically has allowed the Swedes to soar to such melodic heights.
Finally, while Sweden has a strong songwriting culture, it lacks an equally strong culture of performing. Klas Åhlund, a successful Swedish songwriter and producer in his forties, who is also a performer (in the rock band Teddybears), told me, “Swedes are very musical, and they love to write songs. But it’s a big country, and it has very few people in it. So you had these farmers out there who were good at writing songs but had no one to sing them. Songwriting was just a thing you did on your own when you were watching the cows, a kind of meditation. You didn’t focus as much on your ability as a performer as you did on the structure and craft of the songs. Which is really not the case in the U.S., where your charm and your voice and your powers as a performer come immediately into play.”
A nation of songwriters endowed with melodic gifts, meticulous about craft but reluctant to perform their own songs, is a potential goldmine for a nation of wannabe pop stars who don’t write their own material, which is often the case in the U.S. By hooking up the two countries, musically speaking, Martin and his peers changed pop songwriting.
Martin’s legacy must be measured not only by the number of hits that he and his Swedish colleagues have created but also by the songwriting methods that they have instilled around the world. (Many K-pop songs are the result of collaborations between Korean and Swedish songwriting teams.) A strong part of Denniz PoP’s vision for Cheiron was that songwriting should be a collaborative effort; no one was supposed to be proprietary about his work, and Martin has passed these principles on to two generations of songwriters. Songwriters are assigned different parts of a song to work on; choruses can be taken from one song and tried in another; a bridge might be swapped out, or a hook. Songs are written more like television shows, by teams of writers who willingly share credit. In a Swedish TV documentary called “The Nineties,” E-Type describes the working conditions at Denniz PoP’s studio. “I get this feeling of a big painter’s studio in Italy, back in the fourteen-hundreds or fifteen-hundreds. One assistant does the hands, another does the feet, and another does something else, and then Michelangelo walks in and says, ‘That’s really great; just turn it slightly. Now it’s good; put it in a golden frame, and out with it. Next!’ ” The description might apply equally well to Martin’s home studio, in Los Angeles (Frank Sinatra once lived there, and he sublet the pool house to Marilyn Monroe), where he is now the master.
Lennon and McCartney wrote almost all of their hits with each other, and while they had assistance from others in their solo careers, the level of collaboration was nothing like their former partnership. Martin, on the other hand, has consistently sought out new, fresh collaborators when the heat of a previous partnership begins to cool, which is why his magic touch has lasted longer than even Sir Paul’s. These protégés—Dr. Luke is the best known, but by no means the only one—often go on to be major hitmakers in their own right, and acquire and mentor their own protégés, who become hitmakers, too, spreading Swedish methods further and further into the songwriting mainstream. Martin is their Obi Wan.
And yet, for all his success and influence, there is something missing in Martin’s oeuvre, when compared to the Beatles’s. It’s not the quality of the songs—history will judge whether they have what it takes to endure. It’s the absence of a broader political and cultural framework in which to place the songs. The story of the Beatles, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Let It Be,” is a story of the sixties—politics, war, protest, drugs, free love, and how the songwriters responded to those forces. The hits are embedded within albums that offer rich, complex musical statements, and insights into the artists’ personal development and changes. What story does Martin’s string of No. 1s tell, from “… Baby One More Time” to “Can’t Feel My Face,” his most recent? What changes do they trace? The songs are all about the same thing, more or less, which is not the same thing at all.