The Pop Genius of Max Martin

Who? Max Martin? You may not know this Swede’s name, but I guarantee you know his work. Get caught up with this article in The New Yorker.

Among the stranger aspects of recent pop music history is how so many of the biggest hits of the past twenty years—by the Backstreet Boys, ’NSync, and Britney Spears to Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and the Weeknd—have been co-written by a forty-four-year-old Swede. His real name is Karl Martin Sandberg, but you would know him as Max Martin, if you know of him at all, which, if he can help it, you won’t. He is music’s magic melody man, the master hooksmith responsible for twenty-one No. 1 Billboard hits—five fewer than John Lennon, and eleven behind Paul McCartney, on the all-time list. But, while Lennon and McCartney are universally acknowledged as geniuses, few outside the music business have heard of Max Martin.

Presumably this is because Martin writes all of his songs for other people to sing. The fame that Lennon and McCartney achieved by performing their work will never be his, which no doubt is fine with Martin. (He still gets the publishing.) He is the Cyrano de Bergerac of today’s pop landscape, the poet hiding under the balcony of popular song, whispering the tunes that have become career-making records, such as “… Baby One More Time,” for Britney Spears, “Since U Been Gone,” for Kelly Clarkson, and “I Kissed a Girl,” for Katy Perry. The songs he co-wrote or co-produced for Taylor Swift, which include her past eight hits (three from “Red” and five from “1989”), transformed her from a popular singer-songwriter into a stadium-filling global pop star. (The “1989” tour recently passed the hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar mark.)

Martin has thrived in the ghostwriter’s milieu, where the trick is to remain as anonymous as possible, because the public likes to believe that pop artists write their own songs. That the Swede happens to bring to the table an exceptionally large dollop of Jantelagen, the Scandinavian disdain for individual celebrity, makes him especially well-suited to his vocation.

Keep going. It’s really good.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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