Unsung Hero: Max Martin

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There are some names in the music industry that are synonymous with hits – Rodney Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin, Berry Gordy, Mutt Lange, Babyface, Dr. Dre…. You’ve heard of at least a few of these fellas haven’t you?

(This is the part where I resist the urge to rant about women being marginalized in the entertainment industry because how the fuck is it possible that I have to rack my brain to come up with a few female writers/producers that have name recognition – Linda Perry, Diane Warren, Missy Elliot.  There.  Naming three made me feel a little better.  But only a little.. that’s a blog post for another day, because c’mon Backstreet Boys, work with more female writers/producers!)

ANNNYWAY… if you’re a Backstreet Boys fan, there’s only ever been one name you need to know: Max Martin.  Max has been in the industry for just a touch longer than the Boys, and his success was catapulted into unimaginable realms when his path intersected with multiple 90s pop music powerhouses.  In the early years, Max was working as an apprentice to the late Denniz Pop.  Along with Tom Talomaa, Denniz opened up Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, where he would change the lives of not only Max but every artist his protégé influenced from that moment forward.

In 1996, Cheiron Studios entered into a joint production and publishing agreement with the Zomba Group.  You guys remember the name Zomba, right?

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That label right there appeared before and after nearly every Backstreet Boys VHS that I owned.  I remember 1) having no idea how to pronounce it (wanted to say ‘zoom’ but realizing that was probably not correct) 2) wondering wtf Zomba had to do with Jive, who was clearly in the driver’s seat when it came to the Boys’ merchandising.  At the end of the day the only important thing to know about Zomba is they worked in conjunction with Jive and their relationship with Cheiron Studios was crucial to the creation and development of the Backstreet Boys sound.

The parallel relationship between Max and the Boys in terms of their growth and success is unlike other producer/writer and artist relationship.  Think of other famous pairings: Justin Timberlake and Timbaland.  They worked together on multiple albums, Timbaland has a unique sound, Justin Timberlake is an established entertainer.  But Timbaland already had an entire career before hooking up with JT, so that comparison falls flat.  Madonna and William Orbitz created a highly influential and well ahead of the curve album with Ray of Light, but in this case Madonna was already at legendary status and Orbitz, while maintaining some success, never broke through with any other artist as he did with the Queen.

In fact, off the top of my head, the only producer and artist combo I could think of that is remotely comparable to Max and the Boys is Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Janet Jackson.  Jam and Lewis hooked up with Miss Jackson in the early stages of their career as a writer producer duo.  They produced her 1986 junior release, Control, which established Janet as an Icon in her own right – no small task given her family’s stature in the industry.  The duo went on to collaborate with Janet on Rhythm Nation, which churned out five number one hits, and have maintained a working relationship with her that spans a staggering three decades.  In that time frame, Jam and Lewis established a record label and worked with some of the top selling artists of all time.  ….DOES ANY OF THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?!

Nothing will be apples to apples when it comes to Max and the Boys (outside of perhaps, the easiest comparison that I’ve ignored for the sake of suppressing the need to fangirl: Max and Britney Spears.  Those two relationships with Max are utterly unique and the way he’s developed and grown alongside them is fascinating to explore.).

Max is ultimately one of the most elusive producers/writers in the world.  You could possibly even call him the most elusive in the history of music given his massive success compared to his public profile.  Example: Why do I even know what Calvin Harris looks like?  Jermaine Dupree put himself on every damn Mariah Carey track he worked out.  Rodney Jerkins throws the ‘Darkchild’ tag on every song.  The industry is full of men having measuring contests all over your music.

But not Max.

Max gave his first AND last in print interview in 2001 (!!!!) and it wasn’t even particularly revealing. And while he’s known for building the careers of some of our most beloved 90’s musicians, his latest string of hits is no less impressive.  Did you know Max is behind Ariana Grande’s Problem?  Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do?  Demi Lavato’s Cool For the Summer?  The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face?  Oh, not to mention Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, Blank Space, Bad Blood, and Style. Ya know, just every song worth listening to on her 2014 release that’s been in rotation nonstop for over a year.

As you can see, Max’s chart dominance hasn’t wavered since the mid 90’s and it seems like he’s topping himself at every turn.

We plan to post more articles on Max in the coming weeks that dive into more specific areas of his work with the fellas, but we wanted to kick things off by reminding you that the guy still exists and is just as much a part of your musical intake now as he was when you first discovered the Backstreet Boys.

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