The musical genius from Sweden: Max Martin, and his astonishing array of hits.
Ever since learning that Dr. Dre was behind the beat — which I’ve always loved — of Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair”, I’ve been fascinated by who’s behind all the hits. And I recently came across someone I hadn’t heard of before, but had a career so impressive I felt I had to write a blog about it for fellow music nerds out there.
That producer is Karl Martin Sandberg, aka Max Martin, who is ranked 3rd behind only John Lennon and Paul McCartney for most #1 hit singles produced.
Martin originally hails from Sweden, and was performing in a rock band when he was recognized for his affinity for catchy melodies. He experienced success first working with Ace of Base, and then got his big break when he was contracted by Zomba to produce for a new group in 1995, called the Backstreet Boys.
This blog about his career also inspired me to write a second blog, on 10 additional producers behind countless hits I love: Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, Phil Spector, Sir George Martin, Pharrell Williams, Murda Beatz, Scott Storch, and Rick Rubin. That article is here.
The amount of song credits that those ten producers possess is wild, and there are many, many additional producers out there that I don’t know of. But to me, Max Martin’s career is special for a few reasons.
The first reason due to the type of hits he’s made. When you look at Martin’s career, it’s not only full of hit singles, but songs that are responsible for launching, revitalizing, and in so many cases, defining the careers of the artists he’s worked with. It’s one thing to work with an artist who already has a massive following; but to produce so many successful debuts and comebacks is an extremely impressive feat.
The second is the consistent domination of hits. A lot of producers have well regarded careers peppered with timeless classics. But it’s rare to see a single producer be behind so many hits in a given year (read: just about every song that kids were singing along to on the radio, that summer). Martin’s pattern is hustle, talent, and a lot of it, each year.
And third is the fact that Martin has been able to produce hit melody after melody, that has kept up with an evolution of musical tastes.
As poppy and cheesy as many would claim his songs to be, Martin’s melodies really are universal masterpieces. I’ve sung along to these songs at karaoke bars in Tokyo, with people from across the world who spoke English as a second language (if that). Music — melodies, rhythm, patterns — is its own universal language, and transcends so many of our perceived differences. A lot of Martin’s melodies are so catchy, many would argue that the lyrics could be swapped out for just about anything and still stick with you. For melodic geniuses like Martin, melody often does come first, and lyrics are crafted around an indisputable hit progression. McCartney’s “Yesterday”, for instance, was actually originally penned as: “Scrambled eggs / Have an omlette with some Muenster cheese / Put your dishes in the wash bin please / So I can clean the scrambled eggs.”
Combine that beautiful melody with lyrics that hit home in some way, and you have anthems that teenagers (and adults) around the globe sing along to with their friends; classic can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head throwback jams that you can put on anytime, anywhere, and get people moving and laughing and reminiscing about old times. That’s why this list is special, in my opinion. Music is a universal language, and Martin was gifted with the ability to speak to millions of fans, young and old. I’ve done the list by the year, and for some of these songs, you definitely have to have been around at the time to fully grasp how insanely successful they were: on every radio station, and in everybody’s heads. So I hope you find it as interesting as I do.
So that’s the list! It’s pretty mind-blowing, and it was so much fun to go back through and listen to all of those hooks, melodies, pre-choruses, key-changes, and beautiful touches that make you go “Wow — that is quite a work of art.” I think what amazes me the most is how he has been able to evolve his musical output so that generations after generations continue to be humming and singing along to his songs. There are so many industries — ad agencies, fortune 500 companies, toy brands, movie studios — where staying relevant to the new generation is the difference between life and death. Billions of dollars are spent on focus groups, product testing, and research trying to find the next perfect formula. It’s very, very rare, to see such musical intuition in just one singular person. This guy truly is the pure expression of melody, embodied by a human. If he were a Jedi, Yoda would definitely say “The force is strong with this one. Revive Britney’s career, he will.”
All in all, I believe this body of work goes to show that a beautiful piece of music will always have a place in this world to provide joy, relief, inspiration, common ground, and hope for different types of people around the planet, all singing the same chorus.