The Music Makers: Max Martin (… and Sweden)
There have been two countries that have most impressed and influenced my musical sense and sensibilities over the years. The first, and arguably most significant, is the US of A with all the hip-hop and R&B that my heart desired and ultimately craved into borderline addiction. The other is Sweden, thanks to their gigantic and unrivalled contribution to pop music. Not just any old pop music either, or at least not as it has come to be generally regarded … before being immediately and unfairly disregarded. Tut tut, naysayers. Nope, I’m talking about some of the very best pop music we have been privileged to hear.
That influence has been as much from Swedish songwriter/producers as it has the performers themselves. Swedish song makers have had more influence on the modern day pop world at large than any singer or even group of producers, if we exclude the broadening reach of hip-hop and R&B, thanks to production work of the likes of the Neptunes and Dr Dre.
To really trace the origins and impact of Sweden on popular music, we obviously need to start with ABBA. I mean, let’s forget about how much we all hate Dancing Queen nowadays thanks to weddings, both Muriel’s and real life ones. Just think of how good they would still be if you could listen to them for the first time again. Or just recall the genius of Waterloo, Fernando or even Chiquitita. Failing all that, I’ll remind you that Madonna used this spiralling disco siren from Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) faithfully and on loop for Hung Up almost 20 years later, and it still sounded like brand new.
ABBA are in an elite club that won Eurovision and were actually good plus hugely successful worldwide. The only other artist close to a membership in that club is Celine Dion whose application is only pending based on the ‘good’ criteria. I think on balance she makes the cut, mostly because of Think Twice and how much I also appreciate how she has managed to become somewhat of an OTT internet sensation recently. It’s never too late, kids.
Meanwhile, in a no-longer-fun fact, ABBA’s Fernando was only recently overtaken as Australia’s longest running #1 song … by ED EFFING SHEERAN’s Shape of You. I mean, what are we supposed to tell the children? This history of our world becomes less proud as each day passes. On the plus side, he’s making TLC a lot of money, so silver linings/dollar dollar bills and all that.
Beyond ABBA, the late 80s saw Roxette achieve the same sort of world domination with their lush pop-rock and balladry. They exploded onto the scene with the Look and became a staple of radio and pop fans everywhere.
Then the 90s gave birth to the utterly distinct and absolutely (somehow) perfect songs of Ace of Base. Not to mention Swedes contributed three of the best and poppiest tracks to one of the most important albums of my budding adolescence, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet Soundtrack.
But by the late 90s a new era of pop music was making itself known and unavoidable. This sound and movement – and Sweden’s influence on it – can best be summed up with one song: Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time. No worries, you’re welcome. Whatever your views on pop music, you can’t deny the magnitude of this song (and video) for the time, and how much it still represents a new generation of young starlets and popstars in general.
Baby One More Time (or BOMT) was written and produced by Max Martin, one of those aforementioned producers. More than ‘one of’ he is the biggest of them all. Originally … BOMT was written and farmed to Backstreet Boys and TLC, who both politely – and in hindsight, thankfully – declined. Apparently, Britney actually had envisioned more of a Sheryl Crow-style sound for herself and her career but heard BOMT and thought it would work for her because of ‘her dancing’ or some such. Ok, can we please spend some time talking about an alternate universe where Britney follows her instincts and releases light-country-esque-pop and her debut single reaches #85 on the charts and we never hear from her again? I literally can’t, but it’s so insane I had to go there.
Thankfully – at least for those of us that aren’t her therapists or boyfriends over the years – the poptential of Britney met the cunning ear of Max Martin and she became the institution of pop culture history she is today. Martin had already had success re-shaping the charts around that time thanks to Backstreet Boys and *Nsync’s early songs. You’ve no doubt got a pretty good idea of which sound I’m talking about now. Oh, Britney’s Toxic was also c/o the hands of Swedish production duo Bloodshy & Avant, also known as 2/3 of Miike Snow. So, yeh, Sweden is basically Britney’s most successful relationship to date.
But before Max met Britney, Backstreet Boys or ‘Justin Timberlake and his plus 4’, he already had a trial run of sorts with another young pop star from his home country of Sweden. A young artist known as Robyn.
Robyn’s first two singles Do You Know What It Takes, and Show Me Love were of that same 1990s ilk, unabashedly pop, radio friendly almost to the point of stalking, and of course co-written and produced by Max Martin. As fine as these songs were for the time, Robyn would prove herself to be a ‘different’ kind of artist, certainly a different kind of artist to what we would associate Max Martin with over the years to follow. However, as Robyn would go on to refine her sound – and own her image and basically become the the CEO of the indie-pop world – her and Max Martin would work together again later on Body Talk’s Time Machine.
The point where Max Martin made his biggest transition from novelty hit maker for teenagers to someone an adult independent Robyn would want to work with again can be signposted with Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone. With this song we said goodbye to the obvious and simple sounds that catapulted Max and Britney et al into our world (tellingly not actually so obvious or simple that someone had thought of it before) and hello to a new, more hurried and textured sound that relied as much on rock as it did pop. Just like that, it reigned in yet another new era. This is also the time Max Martin started to collaborate with Dr Luke (now with his own diss track in Kesha’s Praying) and together they developed a blueprint that would become the foundation for them to deliver some of the biggest pop songs of that time. The Veronica’s (4Ever), P!nk (U + UR Hand) and Katy Perry (She Kissed a Girl, and I hated it, but then they made Teenage Dream and I loved both it and her) to name just a few.
Max’s transformation wasn’t done yet, and fortunately for him, neither was Taylor Swift’s. For the next major milestone in the ‘why Max Martin is such an important part of pop music history’ is the moment Taylor Swift dropped Shake it Off. Another Max Martin co-write and production, like most of the incredible 1989. But by now he was no longer working with Dr Luke, instead transitioning his creative partnering to his new protégé, Shellback.
The seed for the trio’s collective work on 1989 was already planted after they collaborated on the purest pop moments from her otherwise country-rock-lite album, RED. I’m gonna keep mentioning RED until you listen to it. It changed my whole opinion of Taylor Swift and took my relationship with her from love/hate to love/totally-prepared-to-accept-her-flaws-because-of-her-musical-genius-just-like-I-did-with-Kanye. 1989 obviously only reaffirmed our relationship status.
Since then, Max Martin has worked on Ariane Grande’s best songs, Can’t Feel My Face by the Weeknd and Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do to name just a few mega tunes. He continues to shift gears and prove he’s not a one-trick-pony.
The same can be said for Swedish pop music too. More than just the expected evolution that comes with time, it’s given us artists that challenge and push the boundaries of pop music and either refuse – or at least make it impossible – to be categorized. This independence has been around since Neneh Cherry and continues on to this day through Robyn (v2.0) and Lykke Li.
If you want to know how big Max Martin is by numbers, he comes in third on the tally of most #1 hits by a songwriter in the US. He has 21 in total. Behind only John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
I think those numbers sing for themselves.
Dan! I loved this post. Informative AND funny – the best combo. Also interesting that so many kick arse Swedish singers are female. (Looking at you Lykke Li And Tove Lo). And that Abba Song… just the best! x