Swedish influence has permeated pop throughout the decades, from Abba to the hits of Justin Timberlake. We profile the extraordinary career of Polar Prize-winner Max Martin.
Who’s had more Top 10 hits than Madonna, Elvis or The Beatles? Answer: Max Martin
When Martin Sandberg, known as Max Martin, was presented with Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize in the opulent surrounds of the Stockholm Concert Hall on June 16, his acceptance speech began playfully.
“Well, you did it,” joked the 45-year-old songwriter and record producer who has had a hand in more top 10 hits than Madonna, Elvis or The Beatles. “You blew my cover. For 20 years I’d managed to hide between two speakers in a basement, and then you did this.”
Earlier, we had watched filmed tributes from Martin-aided acts such as Britney Spears, Pink and Justin Timberlake. There were also props from cartoonish rockers Kiss, perhaps the most surprising act that Martin – once the teenage frontman of Swedish glam-metal band It’s Alive – has cited as an influence on his ubiquitous and perfect pop.
With previous Polar Prize-winners including the likes of Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, however, some questioned whether Martin – the man who co-wrote Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl – was worthy.
With a genuine humility, Martin shamed the naysayers. “Without you I’d still be selling CDs at [Stockholm-based record store] Mega Skivakademien,” he joked, acknowledging his late mentor Denniz PoP and the rest of his many co-enablers at Stockholm’s mid-to-late 90s hit factory, Cheiron Studios.
“I’ve always felt like writing pop is a bit like being at the children’s table,” he said, “so to get to sit here with the adults for one day was a great surprise and an honour.”
Then, as Martin promised he’d be “back in hiding tomorrow, back at the children’s table”, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra struck up a medley of his hits, and the assembled crowd slowly exited the building led by a dancing King Carl XVI Gustaf.
One sensed that the Polar Prize – the ultimate home turf accolade for any musical Swede – meant a lot to Max Martin. More than becoming the first non-American citizen to win the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ coveted Songwriter of the Year gong back in 1999. More than gracing the cover of Time magazine in 2001 (“The Hit Man” was the accompanying headline). More, quite possibly, than his 22nd United States number one single (he co-wrote Justin Timberlake’s May 2016 smash Can’t Stop the Feeling with Timberlake and fellow Swedish hit-maker, Shellback).
Born in the Stockholm in 1971, Martin Karl Sandberg had a divergent musical education which incorporated both his elder brother’s cassette tapes of Kiss and Sweden’s fabulous, state-sponsored Kommunala Musikskolan. The latter brought him free French horn lessons, and he also learned drums and keyboards.
A natural aptitude for singing would stand him in excellent stead when demoing songs for some of the world’s biggest pop stars many years later, but in the mid-1980s, he dropped out of high school to become the frontman and main songwriter for the aforementioned It’s Alive.
Any holidaymaker who heard the group during their 1988 residency at a small disco on Cyprus was inadvertently rubbing shoulders with future greatness. The die was cast when It’s Alive signed to Swedish producer Denniz PoP’s Cheiron Records to make their second album. 1994’s Earthquake Visions would only shift 30,000 copies, but crucially Denniz and Sandberg hit it off and began writing songs together.
Sandberg immediately became invaluable to Cheiron (the name comes from the centaur in Greek mythology who taught Dionysius how to sing) because, unlike Denniz or any of Cheiron’s other movers, shakers and beat-makers, he knew music theory and could score arrangements for any instrument.
It was Denniz PoP and Co. who dubbed Sandberg “Max Martin”. He and Denniz’s first major collaborative success was on Swedish act Ace of Base’s multi-million selling 1995 album, The Bridge, but soon came similarly gargantuan success with Backstreet Boys (three of the group’s members read the citation for Martin at the Polar Prize), and before long, Michael Jackson and everybody else who was anyone in pop wanted an audience with Cheiron’s hit-makers.
Sadly, the stomach cancer that would claim Dag Krister Volle – Denniz PoP – at the age of 35 was already incapacitating him as he and Martin began work on Britney Spears’s debut album, ...Baby One More Time, in spring 1998, but Martin steered the ship home.
Crucially, he wrote and produced Spears’s …Baby One More Time, the 10 million-selling number one single that assured her rapid-fire assent to megastardom. At a Polar Talks Q&A session the day before the Polar Prize, Martin explained how the song almost eluded him:
“I was falling asleep when the melody came to me, and I had to force myself to get out of bed and record it on my Dictaphone without waking my wife. I was like [quietly and weakly] ‘Hit me baby… one more time.’ I still have the recording somewhere. You can hear me tell myself, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good.’”
From then on, Martin’s CV as a songwriter and producer began to resemble a “Who’s Who” of modern pop. He was absolutely key to the success of artists such as Backstreet Boys and Katy Perry, but his Midas touch has also helped the careers of Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Ellie Goulding, Kesha, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and more.
It was in the early 2000s, when the much-copied Cheiron Studios closed down and Martin’s daughter was born, that the hits briefly dried up. “We were doing so well, but then Pharrell [Williams] came along and ruined it all!”, Martin recalled at Polar Talks. “I’d reached a point where I thought I was right and everybody else was wrong, but of course it was the other way around. The world had moved on, as it should. That’s what popular culture is all about.”
Martin adapted, however. He moved to New York. He listened to a lot of new music. He finally learned how to play guitar and he started a new production company, Maratone. Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, a co-write between Martin and American production wunderkind Dr Luke, was the 2004 smash that reopened the hit factory.
Per capita, Sweden writes, produces and exports more pop music than any other country in the world. And although Martin is the current figurehead, countless other talented Swedes continue to ensure the country’s remarkably disproportionate influence on global pop.
Witness Jörgen Elofsson, the most prolific writer of hits for the UK Pop Idol and American Idol TV show franchises. Or Shellback, real name Karl Johan Schuster (Adele, Taylor Swift, etc.). Why Sweden, though? Is there something in the water?
“Everyone has their theories, but [it’s] most likely a combination of reasons,” says Stockholm-based music journalist Anders Lundquist. “We are early adopters when it comes to technology and our English is good. We also have a strong work ethic, and when we steal from others we believe we can improve on their ideas, and sometimes we do.”
Lundquist also flags up the importance of the aforementioned Kommunala Musikskolan, and of Sweden’s extremely well-connected network of music publishers. And then there are the appealing traces of Scandinavian folk tradition melody that have trickled down into songs by Abba, Ace of Base and Martin.
More surprisingly, Sweden’s long-standing love of hard rock and hair (glam) metal has played its part, too. “There’s a certain combination of attitude and life-affirming energy in traditional hard rock that can be applied to pop music,” notes Lundquist.
“When you listen to early Max Martin-penned hits for acts like Britney and Backstreet Boys, there’s a fist in the air thing going on that could just as easily be AC/DC or Def Leppard.”
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.