Pop music has always had machines: groups of people who were responsible for an unconscionable, unbelievable percentage of all the hit songs that have permeated the airwaves and our lives. Whether it was the songwriters of the Brill Building—who included Johnny Mercer, Bacharach & David, Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Mann & Weil, Doc Pomus, Leiber & Stoller, Neil Sedaka, and many more— the dominance of McCartney & Lennon, the Wrecking Crew, or today’s leading behind-the-scenes popmeisters, Max Martin and Dr. Luke–hook-laden, easily-accessible pop has often originated from an assembly line.
So—as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid asked, “who are those guys?” Well, they’re a couple of guys who were born about the time I was in high school. “Max Martin” is the nom de digits of Martin Sandberg, a Swede, and his one-time apprentice Lukasz Gottwald is “Dr. Luke”, born in Rhode Island to Polish immigrants.
I recently chatted with someone who had just become aware of the all-pervasive influence of Max Martin in today’s pop music. They were outraged— which I found both charming, and touchingly naive.
“This—this ONE GUY has written or produced most of the big hits of the last TWENTY YEARS!”
“You couldn’t tell that stuff had a common source, just by listening to it? You don’t think “Hit Me Baby, One More Time”, “Teenage Dream”, and “Shake It Off” don’t sound a lot alike? …I mean, A LOT alike?”
“Well, sure—but lots of songs in the past have sounded really similar. Look at the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”.”
“That’s called plagiarism. Berry sued them and got a writing credit on “Surfin’ USA”.”
“Oh. And then, “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord”.”
“Lawsuit. FAMOUS lawsuit. Where have you been?”
“Oh. Well, what about that Marvin Gaye song and “Blurred Lines“?”
“At least Max Martin steals from himself. And only Lennon and McCartney have had more number one hits on Billboard’s charts—that’s pretty incredible. Even if you don’t like his work, you’ve got to admit that he’s a meticulous craftsman, unlike many out there. Also unlike most of the obnoxious self-promoters in music, Martin lets his work speak for him, stays at home with his longtime wife and his kids, and almost never gives interviews. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if Diplo, will.i.am, or Kanye West did that?”
“Diplo? Aren’t those the fake Lego blocks?”
“No, those are Duplo. Try to focus here. Believe me, there are far worse scourges in pop music than Max Martin. At least his stuff is beautifully produced, always has strong vocals, and respects the character of the individual artists. The songs he’s written with P!nk can be pretty damn touching. At least to me—but I’m a sucker for P!nk”
“Well, his buddy Dr. Luke did horrible things to that poor Ke$ha.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Hard to say. She sued him, now he’s suing back. If those things happened, then he’s a bastard. If they didn’t, she’s a manipulative creep. Life’s confusing, sometimes, and there have been plenty of awful autuers in pop music—and classical music, and the movies, and publishing, and basically every field. For better or worse, he’s right behind Martin on the roster of #1 hit-makers.”
“I love that “Party in the USA” he did with Miley Cyrus!”
“…umm. Yeah. It’s certainly quite the ear-worm.”
“But I still don’t like the fact that one or two guys control so much of what we hear.”
“I can understand that. I don’t like the bland uniformity of the music played everywhere. Maybe if the iHeart Radio stations get broken up, things will change. I doubt it, though: these days, You Tube has more influence than broadcast radio—and You Tube is owned by Google, and…. I don’t like the fact that many pop artists are successful due more to their appearance than their talent, but ever since concerts became theatrical events and MTV showed us musicians non-stop, looks have been critical. Do you think someone who looked like Mick Jagger could break into music today? I’m not so sure.”
“Kinda getting off-track here.”
“Well, you have your rants, I’ve got mine. Now I think I’m gonna go have a Corona Light and some Cheetos and watch some Taylor Swift videos.”
[The header pic is Max Martin and a very young—too young—Britney Spears back in the ’90s. If you find the contrast between Martin’s “get the hell outta here!” expression and Spears’ cheerleadery smile a little creepy…well, you’re not alone. And yes, both the songs in the videos were co-written and produced by the ubiquitous Max.–-Ed.]