Max Martin Receives Polar Music Prize: Here's How He's Stayed on Top All These Years
Maxopedia creator breaks down the secrets to Martin's success.
Pop, by its very transient nature, doesn't have a specific sound. While the basics don't alter massively -- verse, chorus, verse, bridge/guest rap, chorus, etc. -- pop music in general is constantly shifting, absorbing and fusing bits of other genres to create something new. Pop gives little to no respect to anyone refusing to shape-shift with it, eventually leaving them behind to lick their wounds or wait and see if their moment comes back around again. All of this second-guessing about where the fickle world of pop is heading next means that very few people involved in its creation are able to maintain relevance: They have their moment, ride the zeitgeist of that sound for a few years and then when pop does one of its hasty U-turns, they get left behind.
This makes the ongoing chart achievements of pop overlord Max Martin all the more amazing. Since his first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit in 1997 with Robyn's “Do You Know (What It Takes),” Martin has gone on to have 63 more top 10 hits as a producer and/or songwriter, most recently with P!nk's “Just Like Fire.” In fact, 22 of the songs he’s written have topped the chart, putting Martin third on the all-time list of songwriters with the most No. 1s behind Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26). Not bad for a guy whose musical education just outside Stockholm, Sweden, involved learning the French horn and fronting a truly terrible rock band called It's Alive. Since those dodgy beginnings, he's produced and/or written defining worldwide hits for the likes of Britney Spears (seven top 10s), Backstreet Boys (six), Katy Perry (11), Taylor Swift (seven), Ariana Grande (six), Kelly Clarkson (three), Pink (six) and The Weeknd (two), among others.
It's this legacy of A-grade, gold-plated pop, full of sky-scraping melodies and era-defining choruses, that has led to Max receiving the prestigious Polar Music Prize on Thursday (June 16) from the actual King of Sweden. Previous winners include McCartney, Björk and Bob Dylan. It's also the reason I've launched a website, Maxopedia, in which I'll write about all 64 of those U.S. top 10 hits, looking at the songs themselves, but also how they fit in the context of what was happening in pop at that time. Over the last two decades, Martin has come to define and create not a pop sound, but an entire pop cosmos of top-tier superstars.
So how, when his peers have come and gone, has Max Martin managed to stay ahead of the game? One massive factor is his personality. In a music industry context, Max has no ego. He doesn't have any social media accounts, rarely does interviews or photo shoots, and is very keen to keep the focus on the pop star in question, both in the studio and after a song is released. He would be mortified that I've made a website dedicated to him, for example. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously,” confirms Adam Lambert, having worked with him in 2009 and again last year on his album The Original High. “He’s not an egomaniac. Someone with that kind of success could definitely be an arrogant f---, pardon my French, but he’s not. He’s cool. He’s got a really dry sense of humor, and I think he genuinely loves making music.”
Behind the smiley public facade of pop is a fairly cutthroat industry, so having a positive working environment to create music in is always a bonus, especially to pop stars who bounce around from producer to producer. Contrary to popular opinion, pop stars are real people who favor being shown respect for what they do, and for Martin, the pop star is the key element in the equation. Pop songs are also not there to just be repurposed, or cobbled together. Max's songs are often tailor-made for the pop star in the session rather than reworked from an old demo squirreled away on his laptop. Time is often spent getting the exact right vocal take and making sure the song fits with the right singer in the right context (Britney's “...Baby One More Time” was initially offered to both TLC and Robyn, but worked for Britney because it was a perfect match of song and artist). “It’s easy to assume that maybe because of a couple of people he’s worked with, or the amount of hits that he’s had, that he’s this Svengali guy that just manipulates the hell out of his artists’ vocals and that he’s pulling all the strings,” says Lambert. “But the thing I noticed when I worked with him is Max really thinks very carefully about the artist. He thinks about the voice the artist has; the persona the artist has and where to place them. His words exactly are ‘how to crack the code’. That’s another reason he’s done so well -- he really thinks about it. He won’t just throw an artist on a track arbitrarily. It has to make sense to him -- sonically, thematically and contextually.”
This helps explain why it's often Martin who's behind helping a pop artist reshape the trajectory of their career, be it assisting Taylor Swift with her big move into pop on Red and 1989, or shifting The Weeknd onto mainstream radio via “Love Me Harder” with Ariana Grande and then “Can't Feel My Face,” or helping Demi Lovato (“Cool for the Summer”) and Selena Gomez (“Hands to Myself”) display new sides to their artistic personalities. For every superstar-making anthem (“...Baby One More Time,” “I Want It That Way,” “I Kissed a Girl”), there are also the smaller moments that help change people's perceptions of who that pop star is and where they can go next (both P!nk and Kelly Clarkson had commercial revivals with him onboard).
There was one period between 2001 and 2004 where Max lost his way a little bit. Aware that music was shifting away from the manufactured pop boom he'd help create in the late 90s, he retreated from the pop frontline to re-group. Pop at that time had fused with R&B, with producers like Timbaland, Stargate and The Neptunes reshaping its parameters in ways Martin didn't have the tools to compete with at that time. By 2003, he'd decided to bring in elements from the new-wave indie boom that was happening, with “Since U Been Gone” -- a defining hit for Kelly Clarkson the following year -- a result of him wishing these guitar bands could write proper choruses. As with all his hits, that song was about collaboration and picking the right foil; in this instance, it marked the start of a lengthy and hugely successful working relationship with Dr. Luke. Once again, this links back to his lack of ego (all collaborators are given credits, no matter how big the input) and his awareness that in order to keep things fresh, he constantly needs to surround himself with new creative talent (collaborators like Ali Payami, 32, and Ilya Salmanzadeh, 29, are part of Wolf Cousins, a creative hub formed by Martin in 2013). As regular co-writer Savan Kotecha told me in an interview for Popjustice last year: “That’s what’s good about having these young guys around, who are so naive. But that’s what Max’s gift is as well is spotting talent and knowing when to bring someone in. He’s the Godfather of pop.”
As Lambert says, in recording sessions it's ultimately Martin who has the “masterplan,” but he's also keen to absorb the excitement and enthusiasm of new talent to keep things interesting. This can be heard on the odd dubstep squelches on Britney's “Hold It Against Me,” or on the throbbing 90s house of Lambert's own “Ghost Town.” It's there in the strange non-chorus of Katy Perry's trap-influenced “Dark Horse” or on the pensive, almost French-electro pulse of Taylor Swift's “Style.” Gifted with the ultimate ear for a nagging melody, he's also the one who can come in and tweak a line to turn it into a hook, or add that special something that elevates a song from a hit into a smash. Often songs will be finished as far as everyone's concerned, only for Max to change a line or elevate a melody and reshape the song, as was the case with Selena Gomez's “Hands to Myself”.
“I always compare him to Michael Jordan,” said Kotecha. “He’s not bad at anything. He elevates everyone around him. You’re playing with probably the greatest when it comes to pop and longevity, you know. He’s defined U.S. radio and he’s mentored so many people, myself included. He also very competitive, but in the right way. He just likes writing great songs and there are no distractions from that.”
Long may he reign.