On the Billboard Hot 100 dated Oct. 28, 1995, “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” by Backstreet Boys squeaked in at No. 97. The song ultimately missed the top 40, but blockbuster success lay ahead for the boy band, which would go on to score three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and six top 10s on the Hot 100.
Following a similar arc, one of the writers and producers of the group’s first Hot 100 entry, Max Martin, who also made his first inroads on the chart with the song, didn’t appear on the list again for nearly two years. But in May 1997, Robyn’s “Do You Know (What It Takes)” debuted directly in the top 40. That August, it peaked at No. 7, becoming Robyn’s first top 10, as well as the first for Martin, one of the song’s writers and producers.
Before long, Martin (born Karl Martin Sandberg, in Sweden) had affirmatively answered the title question in Robyn’s breakthrough hit. By the end of the ’90s, he’d co-written and -produced Robyn’s next top 10, “Show Me Love,” three Backstreet Boys top 10s and solo-penned and co-produced Britney Spears’ debut single “…Baby One More Time,” which, in January 1999, became his first of 23 Hot 100 No. 1s as a writer and 21 as a producer. To date, only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26) have written more No. 1s and only George Martin (23) has produced more leaders.
In the 2000s and ’10s, Martin swelled his count of Hot 100 No. 1s, including eight (that he co-wrote) recorded by Katy Perry, four by Taylor Swift and two more by Spears.
Martin’s most recent Hot 100 No. 1 as a co-writer and producer is The Weeknd‘s “Blinding Lights,” which tallied its first of four weeks on top in April 2020. As previously reported, on the latest, March 13-dated Hot 100, the song becomes the first in the chart’s six-decade history to spend a year in the top 10.
On March 6, Hit Songs Deconstructed, which provides in-depth analysis of Hot 100 top 10 hits, held its Max Martin Deconstructed Masterclass, led by Hit Songs Deconstructed co-founder Dave Penn. Over four hours, Penn and attendees, who ranged from artists to industry executives and more, culled Martin’s catalog in search of characteristics that reveal insights into his unparalleled chart success since the mid-’90s.
Billboard stayed after class and chatted with Penn about Martin, how songwriting and producing intersect with chart achievements and what has helped spark the unprecedented run for “Blinding Lights,” which Martin and The Weeknd co-produced with Oscar Holter and co-wrote with Holter, Belly and Jason Quenneville.
Billboard: What is it about “Blinding Lights” that you think has made it a record-breaking Hot 100 hit? Is there anything especially atypical about it?
Penn: Like most hits, “Blinding Lights” features a meticulous combination of the typical and the atypical, which helps the song sound familiar to people while still standing out from the pack. But when it comes to this song, it’s really the writing and production team’s stellar arrangement techniques, along with Max Martin’s melodic genius, that make it such an interesting and captivating hit.
For instance, its 28-second intro is almost unheard of currently; the average [intro on a] Hot 100 top 10 in 2020 was just 13 seconds. So, it really comes down to the way that the “Blinding Lights” team arranged the intro to keep the listener engaged, all while establishing many key aspects of the song, including its atypical instrumental hook; most hooks in today’s hits are vocal.
Another atypical quality is its, what I call, disappearing chorus. While many top 10 hits give the listener more chorus as a song progresses, the “Blinding Lights” creators actually shorten the chorus as the song progresses. Like with everything else, there is purpose behind this. In this case, it makes the listener long to hear that full chorus again and return for another listen.
Also, the song’s 1980s-influenced production qualities, a la “Take On Me” by a-ha, come across as new and fresh to younger audiences while creating a sense of nostalgia for older audiences, which ultimately broadens the song’s reach across demographics.
But perhaps the song’s most notable quality is the expert use of motifs and hook foreshadowing techniques that take its catchiness and memorability to the next level, whether the listener realizes it or not. This is a hallmark of Max Martin’s melody writing throughout his career. For example, the synth hook in the intro melodically foreshadows lines two and four of the chorus vocal melody. And the verse that follows rhythmically foreshadows lines one and three of the chorus.
So, by the time listeners arrive at the first chorus, they’re already familiar with the entire melody, which makes it that much easier for them to sing along and remember it. And this goes on throughout the entire song; almost every line relates to some other line in the song, which gets it ingrained in the listener’s head without ever becoming monotonous or stale.
These are just of a few of the many qualities that helped “Blinding Lights” achieve its mass success, along with promotional factors like its TikTok dance trend, unique music video and The Weeknd’s Super Bowl performance.
For this hit to come a quarter-century into Martin’s run of commercial success seems pretty impressive. Has his songwriting changed in any notable ways, comparing his ’90s Hot 100 top 10s to his most recent?
What’s so impressive is that he’s always in tune with the times, which has enabled him to stay relevant all these years.
For example, a decade ago he was opting for more clubby dance beats and EDM-styled synths as heard in Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” and silly lyrics like “don’t be fancy, just get dance-y” in “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk. But toward the end of the 2010s, he had embraced trending hip-hop and started including trap beats in songs such as Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” along with more complex, metaphorical lyrics like “when all is said and done, you’ll believe God is a woman.”
Something even more recent is how he’s adjusted his song structure to accommodate today’s increasingly fast-paced, attention-challenged listeners. For example, Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love” and The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” [currently at No. 6 on the Hot 100] both feature so-called bonus hook sections that appear before the chorus even hits. So, he’s essentially ensuring that the listener stays tuned in throughout the entire song by introducing new elements and hooks more frequently.
But while he has adjusted certain aspects of his writing and producing style over the years, what’s interesting is that many things have remained essentially the same. Melody reigns supreme when it comes to mainstream hits, and Max Martin is still the undisputed champion of pop melody. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
You’ve pointed out that Martin songs devote more total time to their choruses than the average Hot 100 top 10. Maybe that’s not surprising, given the strength of his hooks?
It’s not surprising at all. His choruses are stellar, and they’re what the listener shows up to hear every time they listen. However, as we saw with “Blinding Lights,” he’s also not afraid to go against the grain and give the listener less of a chorus as a song progresses. If it’s warranted, he’ll do it. But you’ve got to know the rules to break the rules, and Max certainly knows all of them.
How much do you feel that lyrics matter in his hits? If he’s making such mass-appeal hooks, do you think that his lyrics are similarly meant for all audiences to sing along to, and not be controversial or jarring in any way?
Lyrics, of course, do matter in Max Martin hits, but first and foremost to the extent that they serve the melody. They have to sound good, regardless of whether they make sense or not. Without a killer melody, the lyrics, no matter how amazing they are, will fall on deaf ears.
And while he doesn’t have many songs that deal with controversial issues, there are some that certainly toe that line. Looking at songs like The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” their lyrics heavily reference drug abuse, which definitely isn’t a light topic. That being said, the lyrics in these songs are also left vague and metaphorical enough that you could easily interpret them as being about a relationship. So, when it comes to controversial lyrics, they exist in Max’s work, but rarely are they overt enough to actually cause controversy.
You’ve theorized that songwriting is like other products: Give listeners hooks, but with enough surprises so that songs don’t get too boring or predictable. You could say the same for TV shows, food or anything else that we love to consume over and over. Is that essentially the key when analyzing songwriting, one that’s perhaps easily defined but less easily executed, throughout pop music history?
Exactly. And it’s especially important when competing for attention among today’s mainstream audiences. It’s about achieving the delicate balance between the familiar and the unexpected that’s the recipe for hit songs and all other forms of entertainment. Too familiar and the audience is going to get bored and lose interest. Too atypical and it’s going to be hard for them to easily connect with the song at first listen.
Max Martin has really perfected this balance, which is especially important for a mainstream hit song, where the main goal is to entertain and engage people.