Twenty years ago, Stockholm was littered with aspiring US pop stars. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they left the comfort of home to make a career pilgrimage to the now-closed Cheiron Studios. They would emerge a few weeks later with songs that not only changed their lives, but became part of pop-culture history.
The primary reason for that was Max Martin, an enigmatic, long-haired, former hard-rocker turned uber-music-producer. He is a reluctant public speaker who rarely grants interviews and has no social media presence whatsoever, and yet he is still regarded as the melody doctor that all A-list pop stars seek out for chart success.
His prescriptions over the decades may have been songs that initially follow the standard pop music formula, but listen deeper and you will appreciate the deceptive shift of vocal dynamics, an ingenious use of minor chords and gradual increase of intensity.
His direction served as a bedrock for all the good aural stuff – familiar and airtight multi-part melodies that never outstay their welcome, a chorus as addictive as a sugar rush, and a catchy lyrical nous that was hashtag-friendly long before the term was born.
A young Britney Spears meets Max Martin
One aspiring artist who sought out the good doctor was a 17-year-old southern US singer named Britney Spears. Impressed by her potential, her label, Jive Records – who three years earlier had sent five young boys to Cheiron Studios to emerge with the Backstreet Boys' landmark eponymous album – flew Spears to Stockholm to work on her debut release, ... Baby One More Time, which turns 20 years old on Saturday, January 12.
At that time, however, Cheiron Studios was undergoing a transformation propelled by tragedy.
The production house's leader, Denniz Pop (responsible for Ace of Base's hits All That She Wants and The Sign) had died of stomach cancer the year before, and taking over the reins was his protege Martin.
Under Pop, he learnt the art of hit-making as they co-wrote and produced early hits for the Backstreet Boys (As Long as You Love Me and Quit Playing Games with my Heart) and NSYNC (Tearin' Up my Heart).
Spears became the first artist Martin was in charge of, and his intensity was immense.
"Max is great in the studio," Spears said in a video tribute to Martin. "He is a perfectionist and I look up to that. Being with him is kind of hard because I am always scared I will do something wrong, so I have to pull out my goods when I have to work with him."
Indeed, YouTube footage of the duo working together in the studio shows that Martin would sit beside Spears, and essentially dictate the way the song should be sung.
While Spears would go on to say that the album was not creatively challenging, the end result was undeniable.
... Baby One More Time was a runaway success with more than 25 million copies sold and three chart-toppers spawned: the self-titled track, (You Drive Me) Crazy and Born to Make You Happy.
The album also heralded a shift in the decade's musical landscape. Grunge and rock had been the flavour of choice for youth at the time, and the relentless melancholy was taking its toll. Spears's debut opened the door once again for teen-centric pop, a genre which at that stage was almost relegated to cult status, led by the Mickey Mouse Club, a home to future stars and Max Martin collaborators Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and, of course, Spears herself.
Driven by a renewed appreciation of the past, the successes of Spears and the Backstreet Boys were a reminder of a forgotten 1980s era, when melody and escapism were key factors in
As for Spears, the industry at the time was crammed with boy bands due to the Backstreet Boys' success, and she represented the first potential solo female pop star since divas Madonna and Whitney Houston.
Martin’s winning streak
For the relatively unknown Martin, the album's success began one of the most celebrated runs in pop-music history. ... Baby One More Time was the first of 22 US number one singles written or produced by Martin, a feat only exceeded by the likes of Paul McCartney (32 US number ones) and John Lennon (26 US number ones).
Those hit singles were attained with two generations of artists spanning various genres and career stations.
There were the newbies who came to Martin to get their start, such as Irish boy band Westlife (I Need You), Aussie pop twins The Veronicas (4ever) and Adam Lambert (Whataya Want from Me).
Then there were the stars who wanted to change gear. Martin's guidance was behind Taylor Swift's transformation from country-music darling to present pop queen, while former RnB singer Pink found an arena-ready audience in 2006 with Martin-written anthems U + Ur Hand and Who Knew.
There were also the veteran artists who simply needed the taste of success after a quiet run – think Bon Jovi's 2000 comeback single It's My Life and Cyndi Lauper's giddy disco stomp of Into The Nightlife, released in 2008.
Martin catered for them all without musical prejudice, a gift spawned from his relationship with music both on and off the stage.
Born in Stockholm, Martin was musically inclined from a young age. After studying music in an arts-centred high school, Martin – who was a mega fan of rock band Kiss – became the frontman of his own 80s rock band It's Alive.
Tracks such as Give Us A Place and Sing This Blues showcased a high yet supple tenor that, in retrospect, was more suited to accessible pop than hair metal. The group's second album, Cheiron Studio-recorded Earthquake Vision, was a flop, and the band quietly discontinued.
However, it was through observing Martin's keen eye for sonic detail and melody that the album's producer, the aforementioned Pop, invited Martin to join the team in 1993.
"I didn't know what a producer did," recalled Martin in an interview with Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri in 2016, his first media sit-down in over a decade.
“I spent two years, day and night, simply hanging out in the studio, trying to learn what was really going on in there.”
But Pop knew what he was doing. A producer who works solely on intuition, he needed a foil, someone like Martin with a formal training in music.
As for Martin, he described the studio as "a safe place to hide behind the speakers". That comfort allowed the hard rocker to indulge his love for a great pop song.
The great taskmaster
With ABBA, Ace of Base and Prince as his influences, coupled with his own experience as a singer, Martin became the kind of producer pop stars loved and feared in equal measure – he was a man obsessed with all things vocal.
Harmonies were treated like puzzles and copious hours were spent finding the right patterns and vocal inflections to unlock the keys to pop gold. What really helped Martin stand out among other producers, however, was his ability to communicate his ideas.
Martin is known to sing the whole track as a guide to his artist. "To be able to sing and demonstrate your vision when you record a demo has been crucial," he told Dagens Industri.
“It’s a lot harder to show someone who is really good at singing if you can’t sing yourself. It might be about a technical detail, to be able to really get to the core of whatever problem there is. For the artist, it can also be a trust issue. Something that we can bond over.”
US pop star Katy Perry once described how Martin would focus on the minutiae of her vocal performance, which caused some frustration.
“He is very specific when it comes to vocals and can be a bit of a taskmaster,” she said. “I will have to do [the song] sometimes more than I think we should. Sometimes I think we have it, but then he would get me to a place where I would sing more from the heart and where I am not too much in my head.”
Not only did that graft make huge hits of Martin's co-penned 2008 singles I Kissed a Girl and Hot n Cold, but the emotional heft that the producer demanded provided us with a glimpse of the joy, anguish and naked vulnerability so central to Perry's appeal.
That mixture of surface sheen and depth remains a hallmark of Martin's work, and can be heard in some of the biggest hits of the last decade, such as Taylor Swift's feisty Bad Blood (2014), The Weeknd's Can't Feel My Face (2015) and the dark reggae-pop of Ariana Grande's 2016 chart-topper Side to Side.
But all these winning elements trace back to Spears's ... Baby One More Time. The album may be two decades old on Saturday, yet the tracks – with the exception of E-Mail My Heart (which Martin didn't touch) – remain timeless.
They are still, perhaps, the clearest distillation of Martin's influences. The ascending melodies of the title track, which eventually leads to a pristine cathedral of harmonies in the chorus, is straight out of the Abba handbook. While, if you listen closely to the chorus of (You Drive Me) Crazy, it hints at the hair metal that Martin loved as child.
But, were you to ask Martin, he probably wouldn't have encouraged such an analysis. He views pop-song-writing as the thoughtful process of creating a purely primal product. "I think that a great pop song should be felt when you hear it," he said.
"It's incredibly important to me that you remember a song right after the first or second time you hear it. That something sticks to you, something that makes you feel, 'I need to hear that song again'."