A Brief History is a recurring feature that offers a crash course on some sliver of music or film history. Today, Wren Graves traces how producer and ghostwriter Max Martin conquered pop music in seven songs.
In August, Swedish producer and ghostwriter Martin Karl Sandberg, who goes by the name Max Martin, scored his 21st #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, surpassing The Beatles’ mark of 20 and bringing about The End of the World – or at least, that’s what I thought when I glanced over my Facebook and Twitter feeds and saw the kind of apoplectic rage usually reserved for animal torture from all the #RealFans who care about #RealMusic.
Aside from this vocal minority, there seem to be two other broad reactions to Max Martin and the rest of our Scandinavian overlords – Dr. Luke, Shellback, Stargate, etc. There’s a sort of, “Hmm, isn’t that interesting?” typified by articles in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and then there’s the other 99% of the world’s population who couldn’t care less. Personally, I can’t help but appreciate someone who’s so obviously good at their job, and I’d like to believe that if Max Martin were the world’s greatest plumber, I’d be writing about the first time he held a plunger or his unique approach to the problems of a U-Bend.
Sandberg began his music career in a glam metal group called It’s Alive in 1985, which signed with Denniz PoP’s legendary label Cheiron Records. PoP hired Sandberg away from his floundering rock band to be an in-house writer and producer, and together they produced most of Ace of Bass’ second record, The Bridge.
Denniz PoP gave Sandberg two great gifts: his songwriting process (collaborative, perfectionist, and featuring more than one hook) and his new nom de pop, Max Martin.
Let us now drop in with Martin for his first big hit. The year is 1997. Grab a tub of hair gel and still your beating heart; we’re heading for the golden age of boy bands. Read on to see how Max Martin conquered pop in seven songs.
“Quit Playing Games with My Heart” (1997)
Co-Writer(s): Herbert Crichlow
The recording of the Backstreet Boys’ first album was famously interrupted by puberty. Their manager, Lou Pearlman, knew Nick Carter was the group’s most marketable face, but Carter’s voice kept cracking uncontrollably during studio sessions. The song was released internationally with Brian Littrell singing both verses and re-recorded a year later for the US single, when Carter was literally more of a man.
“Quit Playing Games with My Heart” was Martin’s first top-10 hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Some of this is timing: The New Kids on the Block had recently broken up, leaving a gaping hole on the bedroom walls of teenagers everywhere. But it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where the parents of the Backstreet Boys rejected Lou Pearlman as a creep – in fact, it’s almost harder to picture the world we do live in, where multiple adults, many of them music industry professionals, found him trustworthy. And if the Backstreet Boys had never formed, and never reached out to Martin and PoP, what would pop music sound like today?
Regardless, the Backstreet Boys would never have a higher-charting song, and Max Martin had the big break he’d been dreaming of since his days as a glam rocker. Cheiron Records was about to be in high demand.