Earn This Mixtape: Max Martin Pop

MaxMartin

Pop is the most widely beloved, enduring, and profitable form of music in the age of recording studios.  Probably because of this, it doesn’t get a lot of respect from hipsters, which makes it easy to find online music hubs filled with nothing but loathing and pity for the millions blasting Top 40 on the highway.  At Earn This, though, we’re more than open minded.  The truth is that we love the stuffing out of pop, and nobody has done more to win our love than Karl Sandberg.

Not a name you know?  Well, first let me clarify that he works under the alias of “Max Martin,” and second, know that he’s not a pop artist at all.  He’s a writer, producer, magician, and star-maker.  And you have been living your life surrounded by his works whether you knew it or not.  Let our mixtape guide you through some of Martin’s first, some of his finest, and some of our favorites. (A Spotify playlist of our picks is embedded at the end.)

–Colton

All That She Wants – Ace of Base

Any survey of Max Martin’s pop empire must begin in the mid-90’s with a group I hope you’ll recall named Ace of Base.  And while he didn’t work with the band until their second album, I want to highlight track #1 off their debut.  Along with “The Sign,” “All That She Wants” was produced by Denniz PoP, a musical businessman in Sweden hailed there as the King of Pop early in his career.  Both songs went to #1, the album exploded, a re-titled edition was pushed to American markets, and we bought nine million copies.  Do you know how big that number was in 1993?  The beauty, the grand design of the nascent future of pop was present here in its essence, and it sold itself.

This is the track that allowed PoP to expand beyond his borders and beyond his continent.  Immediately, he founded a little studio (in Sweden) named Cheiron, where one of his first hires was Max Martin.  It was a case of a chance encounter—more on that later—in which a hitmaking genius recognized a songwriting genius on sight and took him under wing.  I have always called PoP the Socrates to Martin’s Plato: we have received precious little from PoP’s hands directly, but he was the true mastermind, and his lessons have been passed on to us through his foremost disciple.  Denniz PoP, born Dag Krister Volle, passed away at the age of 35, just a month before his ultimum opus hit the radio.  It was a team effort with Martin, a little ditty about love sung by a school-age girl from Louisiana. — Colton

…Baby One More Time – Britney Spears

There’s a reason this single changed the face of pop music (for the better, I’d argue). Just listen to the first 65 or so seconds of the song for a sampling. It’s fantastic pop craftsmanship. The verses are catchy and they build constantly towards the chorus, which in turn builds to the fantastic release of each final refrain (“hit me baby one more time!”). The “oh baby baby” hook slinks just the right amount. Martin made Britney sound sultry enough to catch our ears, but innocent enough to not make us feel like creeps. A rare, perfect, game-changing pop single. — Dan

Quit Playing Games (with My Heart) – Backstreet Boys

“Pop” quiz time.  How many Americans waited in line for stores to open on the day Backstreet’s Back came out?  I don’t actually have that number, but I’d put money on “zero,” since the group’s international sophomore album came out one day before their US debut.  I know, I know, call Ripley’s.  But what matters is that the 1996 Backstreet Boys (released everywhere else) and the 1997 US-only Backstreet Boys both feature Max Martin’s first certified hit song as a writer.  Since he had a solid twelve months of pop experience in Sweden at this point, he was able to produce a groundbreaking lead single that launched a handful of random guys who couldn’t play instruments into international megastar careers spanning three decades and counting.  Before *NSYNC, before Britney, “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)” was the herald of the revolution to come. — Colton

I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys

Weirdly, most of Martin’s most prominent acts have released their best songs with different writers and producers. Even his beloved Britney went behind his back and released the single of the decade, Toxic, elsewhere. But there’s no question that the finest Backstreet Boys song was, is, and always will be Martin’s “I Want It That Way.” The first call of “tell me why!” in each chorus is one of those perfect, evocative moments of pop bliss. — Dan

Tearin’ Up My Heart – *NSYNC

I have some notes for anyone who ever argued about which 90’s boy band reigned supreme.  First, *NSYNC was formed by a reject after his failed audition for Backstreet Boys.  Second, from a musical composition perspective, they’re the same group!  Shortly after Nick Carter and company hit American airwaves, we were introduced to Justin Timberlake’s crew via “I Want You Back” (a Martin/PoP team effort) and “Tearin’ Up My Heart” (by Martin and another Swedish associate).  Of these two songs, the latter is much more fondly remembered, and I’m sure you can hear the opening harmonies in your head now.  Frankly, “I Want You Back” is 95% the same song, but a quick peek at the two music videos should be enough to explain why only one was wildly successful.  Apparently “boy bands from space” weren’t in vogue. — Colton

I Kissed a Girl – Katy Perry

I still remember the first time I heard this song on the radio back in ’08. I instantly knew it was a classic. You don’t hear pop songs like this every day. Perry’s distinct, husky voice teamed with a provocative composition and a frisky production turns this into something special. “It felt so wrong, it felt so right” is an almost unfairly good line. The way she sings “just to try it” in this track is Katy Perry’s greatest accomplishment — or maybe her third best (eh?). — Dan

Lucky – Britney Spears

Let me put history lessons aside for one minute and tell you how much I love this song.  So much musical focus is on Britney’s sonorous voice, which is in a deeper range that allows her to float between convincing power and enticing vocal fry.  The synthesized drums blend seamlessly with the synthesized pizzicato orchestra.  The bassline, pilfering chords from “Stand By Me,” puts a focus on the beat throughout while warm strings and harmonized vocal tracks overwhelm you in the chorus.  For my ears, this will always be Britney’s best, and that alone puts it in the running for one of Martin’s best to date. — Colton

Missing You Crazy – Jessica Folcker

Quick, gut reaction: What’s Max Martin’s best single ever? You probably thought “…Baby One More Time” or “I Want It That Way” or “Since U Been Gone.” But go listen to “Missing You Crazy” and tell me it’s any less mind-blowingly brilliant than those tracks. It’s about as obscure as Max Martin tracks come. It wasn’t even released as a single in the US. But it’s one of those lost masterpieces that you spin once a week and love more deeply than the standards. — Dan

Since U Been Gone – Kelly Clarkson

Remember the ancient Greek analogy?  Plato’s greatest student was Aristotle, who gave us things like logic and science.  No less important is the American prodigy Max Martin chose to tutor, Lukasz Gottwald.  “Dr. Luke” has touched everything you’ve loved over the last ten years, from 3OH!3 to Daughtry, beginning with this co-write with Martin.  Thankful was an album that rode the tidal wave of victory off the first season of American Idol; an album that was promptly blown out of the water when Breakaway doubled its sales figures on the back of rock-inspired anthems that explode into house-burning pop.  Working with Dr. Luke and writing for a songstress with a harder edge allowed Martin to branch out and show that great pop is not confined to any small set of instruments or emotions.  “Since U Been Gone” wallops us righteously with brazen cries of freedom accompanied not merely by guitars and live drums, but by genuine licks and cymbal crashes. — Colton

It’s My Life – Bon Jovi

One of Martin’s niches is taking reputed, popular artists, distilling something appealing (or at least ingratiating) from their sound, and crafting it into a a #1 hit. One of his most impressive achievements was helping to turn cheese-ball ’80s hair-metallers Bon Jovi into a band with a serious chart presence in the 21st century. “It’s My Life” is universally appealing and still on the radio nonstop. It even splits duty with “Livin’ On a Prayer” as their trademark song. — Dan

I Don’t Care – Apocalyptica f/ Adam Gontier

Where was I?  Oh right, branching out.  Musical range.  Thanks to Martin, a trio of Finnish cellists in a Metallica cover band joined forces with the frontman of post-grunge heroes Three Days Grace and produced exactly the same style of supercharged climactic chorus with total sing-along sensibility that we hear from Kelly Clarkson.  The Swedish pop recipe involves bringing up the vocals and drums in the mix while maintaining a constant veil of stacked chords so that no empty space can enter when you get to the hook.  With actual musicians on board, there was no need to rely on synthesizers for the background on this track, but the melody is nothing that would’ve made a boy band uncomfortable. — Colton

I Knew You Were Trouble – Taylor Swift

Taylor + Max is an interesting, unexpected partnership. It bothers me a little bit (see my thoughts on Avril Lavigne below), but damn if the resulting singles aren’t catchy. And who would have thought their best pairing would cite dubstep influences! Taylor’s other two Martin-co-penned tracks (“22” and “We Are Never Etc.”) make extensive use of Taylor Swift’s “ironic voice,” which makes me want punch holes in my apartment’s drywall — you ain’t Ke$ha, girl! But she’s largely put to good use in “Trouble,” with the evocative “and he’s long gone…” transition making up for the mouthful, nightmare of a line “a new notch in your belt is all I’ll ever be.” This should go down as one of her three or four best songs. — Dan

Teenage Dream – Katy Perry

Max Martin and Dr. Luke have not passed their prime, but it’s never too early to scout for new recruits, and you don’t pass up a talent like Benjamin Levin.  “Benny Blanco” lived a crazy life, based out of Virginia but traveling solo to NYC soirees repeatedly throughout high school to force himself into the music industry.  His effort paid off when he became—wait, who did Aristotle teach?  Ah, got it—when he became the Alexander the Great to Dr. Luke’s Aristotle.  And Magnus is a fitting epithet for a kid who wrote and produced on Britney’s Circus at age 20, contributed to Katy Perry’s debut later that year, and gave birth to Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” only months after ordering his first legal beer.  Perhaps Benny’s first co-write with Dr. Luke and Max Martin all together, “Teenage Dream” is both sultry and fun, a masterpiece as timeless as the tale it tells. — Colton

Tell Me, Tell Me… Baby – *NSYNC

I’m an unabashed *NSYNC fanboy, but most of my favorite tracks are not Martin-produced. This album track off their last and best (and least-Martin-y) album deserves a shout-out, though. I’m glad they made room a Martin track on their grand finale, as he deserves as much credit for their success as this curly-haired punk. I think my favorite part of “Tell Me, Tell Me… Baby” is the opening. It opens with a few seconds of dull beat, then breaks downand bursts into the sick hook that the remainder of the track uses as its backbone. — Dan

DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love – Usher f/ Pitbull

My Greek genealogy is now complete, but I want to draw attention to a major offshoot.  Among the many (MANY) other Swedes who have exercised control over our ears since the 90’s, I’d identify Shellback as an exceptional success.  The man born Karl Schuster is not much older than Benny Blanco and has been influencing pop artists since 2006 as part of Max Martin’s Maratone Studios, the spiritual successor to Cheiron.  Working with Martin here, Shellback infuses a known quantity from the world of R&B with the same juices Martin pumped into Apocalyptica, turning Usher into a bona fide pop star.  Vocal harmonies, broad singability, and those ecstatic elevated choruses mean that the rap verse was more a boost for Pitbull’s career than a boost from him. — Colton

Dynamite – Taio Cruz

Every decade has a few songs that we’re destined to hear at weddings and on oldies stations for the rest of time, and I think this is one of those tracks. The only thing objectionable about it is how non-objectionable it is. This is Martin as a seasoned veteran at the top of his game. “Dynamite” goes down smooth even after a dozen of replays. It’s catchy. It has sing-along lyrics and charisma to spare. In short, it’s the type of master-class pop craft we often take for granted. — Dan

Beauty and a Beat – Justin Bieber

“Beauty and a Beat” grew out of a demo by Zedd (cf. “Clarity” f/ Foxes) that got handed off to Martin, who made it into a Justin Bieber song.  Building on work with the likes of Usher and Taio Cruz, our Swedish overlord goes all-in here on a legit club track.  He builds in a dance break to accelerate the body-rocking and leans heavily on Bieber’s inborn star talent.  While brilliant pop music can sell itself, Martin is not a vain man, and he has always known the value of a star who can sing, perform, and move records though the sheer force of their celebrity.  From Britney to Bieber, Max Martin has always had a nose for winners. — Colton

Lambretta – Bimbo

Whoa, where’d that come from?! You poke through Martin’s discography, and you occasionally get some weird, fantastic Swedish jams. “Bimbo” is a freaking great song: listen to it if you haven’t. It’s woman-scorned pop-rock of the highest order. Can you imagine if Britney had released this song as a counter to “Cry Me a River”? She may never have melted down and married Kevin Federline and shaved her head. She’d be pop royalty now, probably dating Ryan Reynolds as half of “BriRy.” Instead, Martin released it a year early and it’s doomed to fade into history as a semi-obscure sub-million-YouTube-views lark. Oh well. — Dan

There Is Something – It’s Alive

You don’t want to hear this song, but I have to put it here as the last piece of the Max Martin puzzle.  See, before he met Denniz PoP, Karl Sandberg had very little to do with pop, but he was already a musician.  At age 15, under the pseudonym “Martin White,” he founded and fronted It’s Alive, a European group that channeled America’s 80’s monster rock craze.  After ten years of work, the high-school dropout managed to land his band a record deal with Cheiron, where they finally released their first and last album in 1994.  That’s where the meeting took place that would change the future of pop music for decades to come.  I invite you to listen to “There Is Something” and tell me if you don’t notice a few of the structural things we’ve been talking about, a few stylistic elements that now pervade our radio stations. — Colton

Raise Your Glass – P!nk

I debated between including this recent hit and Avril Lavigne’s “What The Hell,” decided “What The Hell” is a better song, and went with this song anyways. There’s a reason (beyond just honoring how much work Martin has done with P!nk). I enjoy “What The Hell” but actually find it kind of repulsive, a warning of the dangers that are involved with handing your sound over to mega-producers like Max Martin. He’s savvy and knows how to push sales and radio spins by distilling artists into discrete hooks and “feels.” His songs are engineered to sound good the first time and the hundredth time.

This approach works unambiguously for artists who thrive on projecting “feels” more than an articulated personality. I don’t mean this as a critique against these artists: the Britneys and Backstreet Boys and Katy Perrys of the world require their own set of talents, and they need to have the charisma to pull off a good piece of radio pop. They’re the heirs to The Supremes and Abba in an important niche of music. I don’t mean that facetiously.

Let’s consider P!nk for a second. Her defining moment is “Get The Party Started.” Her sweet spot is shouty-singy pop tracks. You know the ilk: “So What” and “Stupid Girls” — P!nk owns this distinct “feel” of a party jam. That’s her. “Raise Your Glass” is a great single in that vain. The lyrics of the verses are remarkably stupid, but the chorus is kind of inspired. “Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways” makes me want drink and dance even more than Get the Party Started does — and that’s an accomplishment. (The song also deserves praise for making “dirty little freaks” a non-sexual rallying cry, which I wouldn’t have imagined possible before I heard this song.)

On the other side of the coin is Avril Lavigne. Her defining song will always be “Complicated.” It’s hard to explain it, but Lavigne has a certain personality that carries over in her best music. It convinces you that you actually know her a bit. Young Lavigne was a little bit of a brat who couldn’t quite decide if she was punk-rock or outcast-cute, but if you were a high school boy at the time, you definitely wanted to make out with her. I listened to Let Go and Under My Skin, and I felt like I knew Avril Lavigne, and I liked that she wasn’t perfect.

That’s why her early excursions with P!nk-style shouty-singy, party-jam pop were so fun. It was Avril in a good mood: letting loose and goofing off a bit. She’s smirking instead of scowling. The Best Damn Thing might actually be her best damn album: We hadn’t lost touch with Avril, but she lit up the room like maladjusted Avril from “My Happy Ending” never would have.

But with each progressive bubblegum single, Avril has sounded less like the Avril I thought I knew. Her dumb pouty face has started to seem awfully empty. These songs are still good, and she can sell them the same way P!nk can, but something is missing. I don’t feel like I know her when I hear “What the Hell.” (This is true with T-Swift’s work with Martin, too).

And I’m not saying the songs that more heavily bear Avril’s songwriting fingerprints are any better. She wrote a LOT of her fourth album, which is dull for long stretches. Maybe I just miss the connection I had with her early music, but I appreciate her self-penned stuff more than her more enjoyable pop excursions.

I don’t blame Max Martin for Avril growing up into a pop star (or, perhaps, “never growing up”), just like I don’t blame him for Taylor transforming from a sweetheart “on the bleachers” to a certified megastar. He’s probably the best pop producer of the past 20 years, but sometimes being “you” is more interesting than being the best. — Dan

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