The big pop hit of summer is here – Ariana Grande’s Problem is consuming the music charts across the world like some out of control pop Pacman. Grande’s collaboration with Iggy Azalea moved 438,000 copies in its first week in the US alone, making it the biggest chart debut of the year and the best first week for a song on the US charts since Katy Perry’s Roar shifted 557,000 last August. The connection between Grande’s Problem and Perry’s Roar? They were both co-written and produced by Swede Max Martin, Sweden’s most successful pop export since Abba.
Ariana Grande feat Iggy Azalea – Problem
Martin is a true pop colossus – he’s had 17 Billboard number-one hits, more than Michael Jackson, Rihanna and Madonna. He’s just one behind Elvis Presley and three behind The Beatles who hold the record of 20. The 43-year-old Swede is the most successful producer-songwriter of the past 20 years, having sold an astonishing 135 million singles. An incredible thirty-eight of his songs have moved more than a million units, and he’s worked with everyone from Britney Spears and Bon Jovi to Taylor Swift and Maroon 5.
The man now known as Max Martin was born Martin Karl Sandberg in 1971 and grew up in a Stockholm suburb. Infatuated with his older brother's KISS cassettes, Martin eventually became the lead singer of the Swedish hair metal band It's Alive. They were dreadful, as evidenced by the Bon Jovi-lite of Sing The Blues. But Martin was already writing pop songs, songs that his bandmates had no interest in. He soon linked up with Dr Alban and Ace Of Base producer Denniz Pop and their first production collaboration was Wish You Were Here by Rednex.
It’s Alive – Sing This Blues
"I didn't even know what a producer did," Martin once told Time magazine. "I spent two years, day and night, in that studio trying to learn what the hell was going on." But learn he did and Martin's first big project was co-producing Ace of Base's second album, 1995’s The Bridge, which went on to sell seven million units worldwide.
But 1997 was Martin’s real breakthrough year – it was when he started working with Britney Spears. "She told me she thought I was an old man,” Martin said. "I was scared of him!" said Spears, who was then 15. "I thought he was someone from, like, Motley Crue or something." Martin still had his hair long and wore leather – sad remnants of his days as a wannabe rock star with It’s Alive.
But they clicked and in 1998 Martin and Spears cooked up … Baby One More Time, which made Spears an instant superstar and Martin the most sought after writer-producer in the music business.
Britney Spears – … Baby One More Time
There followed Martin’s first purple patch where everything he did sold. When he wasn't working with Spears, he was busy writing or co-writing the majority of the Backstreet Boys' songs, as well as tunes from 'N Sync, Celine Dion and, returning to his rock roots, Bon Jovi (It's My Life). It was a remarkable stretch that earned Martin ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year in 1999.
Martin’s recipe for success is anything but simple. For Martin it’s important to understand what his artists want to sing. That doesn't happen by chance. Before he starts writing for, or with, anyone, he talks to them, sees them live and finds out what's in their CD player or on their MP3 player. "I want the input because that makes the chemistry of the song," he has said. Meanwhile, he records ideas on a dictaphone he carries with him. His quality-control regime means that only one idea in 300 gets to demo-recording stage. "You have to be a mass murderer and kill your darlings.”
The real key to Martin’s success is that the 1-in-300 idea will always have a strong melody line, so a listener will know the song in seconds. It can be original or a riff on another song. For example, 'Oops! … I Did It Again' echoes Barbra Streisand's Woman in Love, while Grande’s Problem references Jay Z’s 99 Problems, Madonna’s 4 Minutes and Macklemore’s Thrift Shop.
The recording process is where the real work is done, however. While working on Spears’s Oops! … I Did It Again, Martin admitted that, "After a week I realised it sounded like shit. That's when you get psycho. That's when you get manic." Two weeks of 18-hour days later, he and his production team had completely reworked the song.
After a break in the early-to-mid 2000s during which he had a child and seemed to lose his songwriting mojo, Martin’s second golden age is now upon us – Katy Perry, P!nk, Flo Rida, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and Shakira have all benefited from his songwriting and production smarts in the last few years. As a result Martin is now worth an estimated $250m. And, despite his critics claiming he just writes pop fluff, Martin also has a mischievous, subversive side to him.
P!nk's F**kin' Perfect topped the charts, despite the glaring f-bomb in its title and chorus. Martin also had a hand in Avril Lavigne's breezy embrace of promiscuity and rebellion called What the Hell. And then there's Katy Perry's anthems to lesbian experimentation (I Kissed a Girl), having sex and taking drugs on the beach (California Gurls). There’s also group sex with Britney's 3 and a spot of masturbation when P!nk tells an ex to go home and, er, look after himself on U + Ur Hand.
Katy Perry – I Kissed A Girl
Martin is also royally unruffled by those who dismiss his music as kids’ music. “A lot of the stuff that was once considered rubbish or ‘for kids’ is now considered classic and people get knighted for their involvement in it. Pop music is always about NOW. But only time will tell what songs will survive. That’s what pop culture is supposed to be about. If people were going to be scared about how they’d look in old photographs they’d never buy fashionable clothes – it has to be about the moment. Artists, clothes, music, you have to take the risk and make your mark.”