Twenty years ago this month, Britney Spears released her epochal debut single “…Baby One More Time.” This week, Billboard celebrates the pivotal pop classic two decades later with a look into songwriter-producer Max Martin’s career since making Spears a star.
Think of any blockbuster pop song from the past two decades, and there’s a good chance that one particular hirsute Swede played a part in it. Indeed, with writing credits on an astonishing 22 U.S. number one singles — the majority of which he also produced — Max Martin is fast catching up with John Lennon (26) and Paul McCartney (32) as the most successful songwriter in Billboard chart history.
But the man who brought us Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” which was released as a single 20 years ago this month, has come along with since he shaped the sound of Y2K-era pop. Over the years, he’s worked with everyone from Adam Lambert to Zlatan Ibrahimovic (yes, that Zlatan Ibrahimovic); found inspiration in musical traditions as disparate as dubstep and indie rock; and outlasted countless other producers by switching up his style before his signature sound could become totally irrelevant.
Below, to celebrate the song’s anniversary, Billboard is taking a year-by-look back at the highs, lows, and surprisingly average moments in the career of pop’s ultimate — and ever-changing — hit machine.
1998: “…Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears
Martin had already propelled Backstreet Boys and Robyn to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 by the time that “…Baby One More Time” was unleashed in the fall 1998. But it was undoubtedly Britney Spears’ debut single in which Martin’s signatures — bombastic electronic beats, sledgehammer keyboards and a ridiculous amount of earworm hooks — became the de facto sound of modern teen pop. Co-written in the same year he took over the legendary Cheiron Studios, this monster tune sold an astonishing ten million copies worldwide and kickstarted a No. 1 streak for Martin that would later surpass those of fellow Swedes ABBA, Roxette and Ace of Base combined.
1999: “I Want It That Way,” Backstreet Boys
Having honed his sound during Backstreet Boys’ slow but steady rise to fame, Martin rewarded the quintet with one of the defining boy band songs of the 1990s. “I Want It That Way” may have been lyrically confusing at times, but it emphasized a core tenet of Martin’s songwriting philosophy: The words don’t have to make sense if it feels good to sing. And with help from that ground-shaking key change, “I Want It That Way” had everyone singing: The first single from the record-breaking Millennium may have followed Britney’s breakthrough all to the way to the top spot had it been commercially available as a single during its peak. Instead, it had to settle for a No. 6 best in addition to the honor of being Martin’s first Grammy-nominated hit.
2000: “It’s Gonna Be Me,” *NSYNC
After smashing their boy band rivals’ first-week sales record with No Strings Attached, *NSYNC then added insult to injury by scoring a number one single with one of BSB’s main collaborators. Martin’s fingerprints are all over “It’s Gonna Be Me.” And in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that same year, the Swede revealed how he’d perfected his winning formula: “I want to be part of every note, every single moment going on in the studio. I want nothing forgotten, I want nothing missed. I’m a perfectionist.”
2001: “Overprotected,” Britney Spears
Hit hard by the death of founding member Denniz PoP, Martin and fellow producer Tom Talomaa called time on the Cheiron (“We feel that the ‘hype’ of Cheiron has become bigger than itself, and it’s time to quit while we’re ahead,” they said in a statement) and, in 2001, formed their own company, Maratone. Yet the initial output from this new venture — four tracks from Britney’s eponymous third album — suggested that it was pretty much business as usual. “Overprotected,” a defiant statement of intent which steered the ship into safer waters after the boat-rocking “I’m a Slave 4 U,” was the record’s highlight. But the hiring of Rodney Jerkins to remix its U.S. single release suggested that Martin’s style was falling out of fashion.
2002: “I Got You,” Nick Carter
Martin’s status as a surefire hitmaker had all but disappeared by 2002. Not one of his tracks made the Hot 100 that year as he busied himself by working with second-tier girlband Play and Swedish techno-metal outfit Pain. Elsewhere, Justin Timberlake, departing from *NSYNC, opted for the much cooler Pharrell and Timbaland to oversee his sexier solo reinvention. Martin still got the chance to help another boybander go it alone: Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter. Yet his three contributions to Carter’s debut album, Now or Never, were dated pop-metal affairs which suggested the Swede had simply raided the archives of his big-haired ‘80s outfit, It’s Alive.
2003: “Faith,” Celine Dion
2003 was perhaps the most fallow period of Martin’s career: Three tracks on Celine Dion’s One Heart was all he had to show for his end-of-year report. And the fact that “Faith” – a half-hearted attempt to give the balladeer some more contemporary chart relevance – was only chosen as a fifth single may have suggested to some industry observers that Martin reign was over. Little did we know he was just about to unleash another game-changer that would redefine the pop landscape and give his career a much longer second wind.
Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2004)
That track, of course, was “Since U Been Gone.” Inspired by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” the song marked the first of many collaborations between Martin and Dr. Luke and showed off a harder-edged rock sound. It also didn’t exactly have the most auspicious of starts – both Pink and Hilary Duff gave it a hard pass before its creators reluctantly handed it over to Kelly Clarkson. Still, the original American Idol transformed the song into the ultimate pop-rock kiss off, returning Martin to the top 10 for the first time since the turn of the century.
2005: “Analogue: All I Want,” A-Ha
Martin’s creative resurgence took some time to ripple through the industry. The producer spent most of 2005 either reuniting with former cohorts long past their commercial peak (Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi), second-tier talent show graduates (Bo Bice) or artists who failed to find an audience outside their Scandinavian homeland (Darin, Marion Raven). However, this period did produce one of Martin’s hidden gems, a melancholic yet soaring burst of piano-rock in which A-Ha beat several of their natural successors (Coldplay, Keane) at their own game.
2006: “Who Knew,” Pink
Pink had already explored the type of feisty pop-rock sound that Martin and Clarkson embraced on her 2001 sophomore Missundaztood. But that didn’t stop some naysayers from describing this standout from her 2006 return to-form I’m Not Dead as a “SUBG” knock-off. “Who Knew,” one of three Martin contributions to the record, undoubtedly shares some DNA with the monster hit Pink turned down. But she undoubtedly puts her own stamp on a heartfelt lament to lost loved ones with what was then one of the most emotionally affecting vocal performances of her career.
2007: “Feels Like Tonight,” Daughtry
While the Clarkson and Pink collabs injected a fresh energy into Martin’s career, to say that Martin had the midas touch in the mid-2000s wouldn’t be totally accurate: In 2007, the Swede worked with everyone from U.K. X Factor winners Leona Lewis and Shayne Ward to Billboard chart-toppers like Enrique Iglesias, James Blunt and Avril Lavigne. But his only Hot 100 entry that year appeared courtesy of Daughtry’s “Feels Like Tonight,” an entirely unremarkable piece of post-grunge pop which suggested that Martin was in danger of losing his mojo once again.
2008: “I Kissed a Girl,” Katy Perry
During the next year, however, Martin helped turn a previously unknown Christian singer into a world-conquering pop provocateur — and proved that if you write him off, it’s at your peril. Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is far from being both parties’ best work. Martin drowns out Perry’s vocals in so many effects that she barely sounds human, and the faux bi-curious lyrics, like many from its parent album, One for the Boys, are odds with her current, more “woke” persona. (“If I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it,” she said earlier this year.) But as attention-grabbing debut singles go, it did the trick and then some, giving Perry her first No. 1 and Martin his first in eight years.
2009: “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Kelly Clarkson
A watered-down take on Clarkson and Martin’s previous triumphs, “My Life Would Suck Without You” felt like damage control following the muted response to the American Idol’s difficult third album, My December. Even Clarkson wasn’t thrilled about it, explaining in an interview last year that she had asked her label not to pair her up with co-producer Dr. Luke again and, when they didn’t, kept her name off the writing credits despite having a major hand in shaping the song. (“If you heard the original version, you wouldn’t have wanted to record it either,” she said.) Nevertheless, the song was an undeniable smash, making a record-breaking leap from 91-7 in its second week of release before eventually snagging the top spot.
2010: “Raise Your Glass,” Pink
By this point, Martin couldn’t stop scoring number ones. After previously guiding Pink to the top spot with “So What?” in 2008, he repeated the feat with this champagne-toasting ode to the “dirty little freaks” everywhere. With its ridiculous lyrics (“don’t be fancy, just get dancey”), stomping pop-rock production and a celebratory “be yourself” chorus – part of a wave of “It Gets Better” pop that included Kesha’s “We R Who We R” and Perry’s “Firework” — the second single from Pink’s Greatest Hits… So Far collection encapsulated everything that made her such an outsider icon.
2011: “Hold It Against Me,” Britney Spears
It’s perhaps only right that Martin’s tenth U.S. No. 1 appeared courtesy of the superstar responsible for his very first, although “Hold It Against Me” is an entirely different beast compared to the precision-tooled teen-pop of “…Baby One More Time.” Combining the sounds of European trance and techno with the must-have accessory of 2011 — a dubstep breakdown — Femme Fatale’s lead single saw Martin hitting the dancefloor harder than ever before. It also appears to have marked the end of an era: Despite contributing six other tracks to Femme Fatale, the Swede hasn’t worked with Britney since.
2012: “One More Night,” Maroon 5
After mostly abandoned their earlier soul-funk sound in favor of a more trend-friendly approach, it was inevitable that Maroon 5 would end up joining forces with pop’s premier hitmaker. The cod-reggae sound of The Police appeared to be the starting point for Martin’s most notable contribution to their 2012 fourth LP, Overexposed. But as one particularly scathing critic put it, this Cali band’s attempt to embrace the Caribbean came across as so inauthentic it made Martin’s fellow countrymen Ace of Base look like reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry.
2013: “Roar,” Katy Perry
Martin was instrumental in the blockbuster success of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream — he contributing to four of its five No. 1s — and he furthered Katy Perry’s hot streak with this epic self-empowerment anthem. Despite criticism surrounding its simplistic, cliched lyrics and obvious similarities to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” this lead single from Prism beat Lady Gaga’s Artpop kickoff single “Applause” to the top spot — and saw Martin land his first Song of the Year Grammy nod since the turn of the millennium.
2014: “Shake It Off,” Taylor Swift
Martin first helped Swift transcend her wholesome country roots with three tracks on 2012’s Red. However, it was his seven contributions to chart juggernaut 1989 — three of which made number one — that cemented Taylor Swift’s status as pop’s ruling lady. “Bad Blood,” with its Kendrick Lamar remix, may have widened her audience, and “Blank Space” may be the better song. But it was “Shake It Off,” the big, bold and brassy riposte to all of Swift’s haters, that pushed its parent album to the kind of first-week sales not seen since the early 2000s. A long overdue producer of the year, non-classical award at the Grammys followed.
2015: “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd
Once (and perhaps still) the poster boy for self-destructive, self-medicating R&B, The Weeknd seemed an unlikely fit for a producer whose 2015 credits also included the ubiquitous Adele; former Disney Channel queens Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato; and Glee graduate Kevin McHale. But after toiling in semi-anonymity in his early years, The Weeknd decided to fully embrace the mainstream on this irresistible funk-pop chart-topper, which would have sounded right at home on Michael Jackson’s Thriller — were it not for the glaringly obvious cocaine metaphor, of course.
2016: “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Justin Timberlake
Max Martin added Oscar nominee to his list of achievements in 2017 thanks to this long-awaited reunion with one of his earliest proteges. Justin Timberlake may not have needed the Swede for the post-*NSYNC phase of his career — and he would eventually pass on using him for 2018’s Man of the Woods — but with a kids’ movie to promote, the star benefitted from Martin’s hitmaking talents this time around. The producer duly obliged with a technicolor dance workout that echoed the feel-good vibes of another animated tie-in, Pharrell’s “Happy” — and became just as inescapable.
2017: “Lust for Life,” Lana Del Rey feat. The Weeknd
Regular Martin collaborators like Pink, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift all requested the Swede’s services again in 2017. However, the year’s finest Martin moment came courtesy of a much moodier and more mysterious pop presence. The title track from fourth album Lust for Life still retained the retro, noirish sound that Lana Del Rey had built her following with, but thanks to some sizzling chemistry with The Weeknd — and perhaps Martin’s sunnier songwriting sensibilities — the dream-pop duet also brought some light to her usual gloom.
2018: “No Tears Left to Cry,” Ariana Grande
Speaking of shining some light in a dark place: Martin reunited with Ariana Grande (they previously collaborated on the hat trick of “Problem,” “Break Free” and “Bang Bang”) for the first single off this year’s Sweetener LP with a track that found triumph in tragedy. While other producers may have opted for maudlin or mawkish comeback, Martin and Grande acknowledged the 2017 attack on her Manchester concert with a quirky dance track about picking up the pieces — healing but not forgetting. Combining Grande’s melancholic melodies with a euphoric mix of retro house synths and two-step garage beats, “No Tears Left to Cry” proved that 20 years after his most iconic hit, Martin still understood the power of pop like no other.