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How a Swedish hair-metal singer took over American pop music

John Seabrook explains the rise of Max Martin and other mega-producers.

Max Martin (left) during the production of Taylor Swift's (right) album 1989, for which he co-wrote most of the singles.
Max Martin (left) during the production of Taylor Swift's (right) album 1989, for which he co-wrote most of the singles.
Taylor Swift / Instagram
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

If you were making a list of the most important people in pop music today, you'd obviously have to include the megastars: Beyoncé, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Katy Perry. But right alongside them would be people like Tor Erik Hermansen, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, Ester Dean, Martin Karl Sandberg, Bonnie McKee, Lukasz Gottwald, Karl Johan Schuster, and Benjamin Levin.

The latter group are not household names. None of them have had No. 1 hits as artists. But they write and produce an astonishing number of Billboard hits every year. Sandberg — who goes by the stage name Max Martin — has 20 No. 1 singles to his name, from Swift's "Shake It Off" and "Blank Space" to Perry's "Teenage Dream" and "I Kissed a Girl" to Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time" to the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." Hermansen and Eriksen — who produce as a duo known as Stargate — are responsible for Perry's "Firework," Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," Rihanna's "Rude Boy" and "S&M," and even "What Does the Fox Say."

Max Martin and Stargate are major characters in John Seabrook's The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, which was released this week. Seabrook — building off profiles of Stargate and Gottwald (better known as "Dr. Luke") he wrote for the New Yorker — details how major pop hits are manufactured today, and traces how a gang of Scandinavians (mostly Swedish, but some Norwegians like Stargate, too) wound up as huge players in American music. We spoke last week about the book, the music industry, and whether pop is really any more manufactured than it's ever been.

Dylan Matthews

Some of the producers you profile had worked as performers: Max Martin was in a hair-metal band, Dr. Luke was a guitarist in the Saturday Night Live band, Denniz Pop had a solo career in Sweden before writing Ace of Base's hits.

Did you get the sense that they really wanted to be stars and this was the next best thing?

John Seabrook

I've always felt on the American side — because there's such a premium placed on performing and that's the real measure of artistry — that almost everyone starts out with the idea of becoming a performer. I think Dr. Luke did. In fact, [record executive] Jason Flom signed Luke to an artist deal when he was still playing guitar at Saturday Night Live, but nothing ever came of the record. It didn't even come out, but they made an album. In his case, he was deejaying, he was a little bit bored with his SNL gig. He was looking for the next step, and the artist step wasn't really happening for him. But when he hooked up with Martin, the songwriting and production step really opened up, and he was in it pretty fast. That became what he did, and there was no reason to say, "Wait, wait, I actually want to be an artist."

When you're talking about the Swedes, and to a certain extent the Norwegians, there you're dealing with a different set of cultural influences. There's this whole concept, from a novel in the 1930s, called Jantelagen, the laws of Scandinavian restraint. The idea is that individual success is to be frowned upon in Scandinavian culture, and it's really about the group and not the individual. That particular set of influences was very instrumental in shaping Denniz Pop and his group of disciples, of whom Max Martin was obviously the most successful. It's a major force in Max Martin's career.

Max Martin got his start as lead singer (center in above thumbnail) in the glam-metal band It's Alive.

It's pretty amazing to think, for an American, that a guy like Max Martin — who has an incredible gift for song and an amazing singing voice, and doesn't look bad, he's a relatively good-looking guy — could have been an artist, could have sung his own songs, and instead gave all of his amazing tunes to other people, but at the same time forced them to follow almost exactly the demos that he sang and sing them exactly his way. In a sense, all of these artists are actually covering Max Martin songs, but no one has ever heard the demos except for the artists who followed them. That is a very difficult concept for an American to wrap his mind around. It's almost weird or pathological.

What's the difference between the Beatles and Max Martin, really? You could say the Beatles' songs are maybe a little bit better, but that's a very subjective judgment. The real difference is that the Beatles perform their own songs and that's why the Beatles are universally recognized as geniuses, whereas Martin never performs his own songs, and that's why outside the music industry, nobody knows who Max Martin is. It's a hard thing for most Americans to wrap their minds around, but if you look at it in a Swedish context, it makes a little more sense.

Ted Leo shows just how similar "Maps" and "Since U Been Gone" are.

Dylan Matthews

One of the more interesting anecdotes in the book is the story of how Max Martin inverted "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into "Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson — he loved "Maps" but was frustrated that it didn't have a big chorus, so "Since U Been Gone" is "Maps" but with a huge chorus.

How common was that pattern, of these guys getting influenced by smaller acts, or from indie or metal or other non-pop genres?

John Seabrook

As far as I can tell, they're never looking for other pop songwriters or producers they can collaborate with. They're always looking completely outside the world of pop: indie artists, underground hip-hop beatmakers, or death metal. There's a lot of parallels between the Swedish death-metal scene, which seems very edgy and alternative, and mainstream pop, and when you think about it, it kind of makes sense, because they're both very theatrical kinds of music in which song dynamics and singing matter hugely.

[Kesha/Katy Perry songwriter/producer] Benny Blanco, when I talked to him, said that when Dr. Luke approached him it had never occurred to him to write a pop song or even to listen to pop music. That's the thing about pop: It's the mainstream music, but it does incorporate all kinds of different elements from music that's outside the mainstream, and they coexist in this Top 40 space, which is musically inclusive in a way that music that is more based on genre or style or sound might not be. That's the thing that drives guys like Max Martin to keep looking for the edgier sounds, because he knows that with the right technique, or the right combination of production and melody, those sounds can be made to sound mainstream, or at least they can convert people to the sounds and become mainstream.

That was one of the most interesting things in reporting the book, one of the revelations, how these guys really look elsewhere than you would imagine to find their next sound. This is the reason Max has lasted as long as he has, in terms of producing No. 1s longer than anyone. It's not like there's a Lennon-McCartney or a Jagger-Richards. He's always looking for the next person and doesn't seem to be invested in songwriting partnerships, which kind of flies in the face of tradition, going back to [Broadway songwriting duo] Rodgers and Hart. We've thought of songwriting as a partnership between a melody person and a lyric person, and the songs are now made more through a partnership of a beatmaker and a melody person. The beats are very subject to fashion and change, and they get dated fairly quickly, so you constantly need to look for new, edgier collaborators, lest your sound get stale.

In the case of Max, one of the searing and transformative moments in his career was when he actually did go out of fashion in 2001 to 2003, when there was a real backlash to the pure pop, Backstreet Boys–type sounds. He became the poster boy for that and had trouble getting cuts on records. He must have thought to himself, "I'm not going to let this happen to me again," and he hasn't, by constantly looking to the edge of them and finding new sounds.

A rare public appearance by Max Martin, to celebrate the Backstreet Boys' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Dylan Matthews

Max Martin is famously press-averse, and while you describe spending time with Dr. Luke and Stargate, I wasn't clear on how much he was actually involved. What was your relationship with him like? Was he cooperative?

John Seabrook

Not really. We talked about talking; we met up a couple of times. The question was always, "Are you going to officially participate in the making of the book?" I talked a lot with his agent, too. In the end, he didn't actually speak to me on the record. That'd be the big distinction between Luke and Blanco, and Max.

He remains in the book a bit of a shadowy figure, which is probably just the nature of my interactions with him, but I felt in the end that that was kind of appropriate. He is such a shadowy figure in pop music. He's kind of like this mystery at the heart of it all. I guess I let the mystery be, to a certain extent. I also felt that by not having his direct participation in the book, it kind of freed me to be a little more critical or judgmental, or to take a more skeptical tone a little bit regarding his success, without feeling like I was betraying him or violating his trust. Some writers don't really give a shit about that, but I actually do care a lot about that stuff. I felt a bit freer not having his participation.

Dylan Matthews

Beyond just Martin, the book focuses on people working behind the scenes in music. Was it difficult to get other subjects to cooperate, since they aren't usually the ones getting profiled?

John Seabrook

To a certain extent I did face some of those difficulties, but I also discovered that a lot of these people have gone a long time without any acknowledgment at all in the general public as to how successful and talented they are. There's a natural human tendency to want to take credit, and I was able to work with that and make it clear to them that I wasn't going to totally blow their cover, and also wasn't going to give all the credit to them. The artists clearly do have some input into the process — some more, some less.

A lot of their friends and even their families really had no idea what they did. I remember after I did the Stargate piece, their manager, Tim Blacksmith, called me and said, "Thank God, I can give a piece to my mother and say, 'This is what I actually do.'" They didn't have anything like that, and their mothers never knew what they did. That helps.

Of course, there is always the need to remain somewhat in the shadows. Dr. Luke was particularly aware of that, because he was very aware of what happened to the Matrix when they started taking credit for writing Avril Lavigne songs. That was the end of the Matrix. He didn't want that to happen to him.

Dylan Matthews

Throughout the book, you seem to be wrestling with the question of whether this process is inauthentic, whether there's something missing from a Max Martin hit compared with a hit from an artist who writes her own songs. How did you wind up feeling about that? Did you wind up with more respect than you thought you'd had for the system? More reverence for singer-songwriters?

John Seabrook

I definitely came to appreciate the extraordinary talent and ingenuity that goes into making these songs. Partly that was that I got a sense of how many other people are trying to do it and how rarely it actually works. With Max Martin it seems to work once every other time. I definitely ended up with a deeper appreciation for his particular genius.

If I sort of feel like there's something missing in it all, compared with the Beatles or Neil Young or the Stones, it's the sense of personal development. The Beatles went from "Please Please Me" to "Revolution," and that change represents not only huge personal changes for them, but also the whole '60s and politics and drugs and free love. You can appreciate their body of work from a political, social point of view and learn a lot about the era in which they wrote by listening to their songs.

You can't really do that with Max Martin songs. What's the progress from "Baby One More Time" to "Can't Feel My Face"? You can maybe point to certain musical innovations, or maybe there's a frankness about sex that becomes more present. But it's hard to say, "Oh yes, this work of Max Martin reflects these changes in politics and society." It's not there, I don't think, because the songs were written for different reasons. I can't say why Max Martin wrote what he wrote, but it's much more of a work-for-hire situation, where you had an artist and a label and a record contract and you needed a song, as opposed to Paul and John sitting around in Paul's upstairs room, writing what comes into their heads.

It's romantic, but I do prefer thinking of John and Paul sitting there and writing "I'm Only Sleeping" because John has trouble waking up in the morning to Clive Davis saying, "I need a rock-pop song, and I have this artist named Kelly Clarkson, whaddaya got?" The former's a little bit more appealing.

Dylan Matthews

I don't know if you can tell the difference between "Baby One More Time" and "Can't Feel My Face," but you definitely can tell the difference between an early Motown single like "Please Mr. Postman" and a late one like "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," which came out of a very Martin-esque hit factory.

John Seabrook

Maybe it was just the '60s. That was a really rare time in the record business. Records were leaders of cultural change, and people listened to records to find out what was going on in the culture. Today they, I don't know, they check out Facebook or Twitter for that, but they don't necessarily listen to the radio or to an album.

The other thing is that the album, and the end of the album as the standard record business commodity and the shift to the single, tends to strangle some of the artistry. Max Martin isn't writing albums. It'd be interesting if he did an album. What would be the single? What would be the 10-minute jam? There just isn't that stuff. You miss it a bit.

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