Max Martin, the Man Behind a Million Earworms

Max Martin, the Man Behind a Million Earworms

By Libby Coleman

SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY


That’s his music playing inside your head. 

By Libby Coleman

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and world leaders, as well as entertainment.

You probably either love or despise Max Martin’s songs when you hear them, and you’re gonna hear them — playing over and over again, nuclear-powered earworms burrowing into your brain as they climb the pop charts. You know some of his lyrics better than you know your own name, and why not: He’s been making the Top 40 his personal dominion for nearly 20 years, racking up an outrageous 21 No. 1 singles in his career as a songwriter and producer, from “Since U Been Gone” to “…Baby One More Time” to “Blank Space.” His signature sound? Big, bombastic choruses, lots of synthesizers and surprising chord progressions, says Nate Sloan, musicologist and podcaster at Switched on Pop.

But it’s not likely, even if you’re the world’s most obsessive Taylor Swift (“Shake It Off”) or Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”) fan, that you know Max Martin. The 44-year-old Swede turned Southern Californian has been a major power behind the throne to pop royalty, a record-business Rasputin. He’s penned more No. 1 songs than anyone besides the Beatles’ Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26). But despite numerous awards, including a producing Grammy, he’s stayed mostly out of the limelight, his huge influence buried in liner credits that the average fan rarely reads. Martin was a mystery even to Swift before they worked together: “He’s so enigmatic,” she said in a Grammy Pro interview this year. “You’re like, what does he look like, what does he talk like, does he wear a cloak?”  (Kobalt Music, his publishing company, declined to pass along OZY’s request for comment for this story.)

The guy who writes pop music’s Top 40 started his music career as the front man of a Swedish metal group called It’s Alive.

Popular music has always had powerful ghostwriters and producers. Before records started spinning, writers were more important than performers, and sheet music dominated sales. As record sales began growing in the mid-1920s, so did the cult of personality, and the artists interpreting the songs became the selling point. Still, along the way, the offstage talent sometimes found the spotlight: George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, was called the fifth Beatle; Phil Spector, with his Wall of Sound, was the puppet master behind numerous successful groups, including the Ronettes.

Today it’s not unusual for producers to find the public eye (or ear): Think DJ Mustard and T-Bone Burnett. But more often it’s pop stars, the faces and voices of the music, that fans connect with. Those fans may think they’re listening to a “personality-driven pop song,” music historian Steve Waksman says, but “in fact, there’s machinery underlying it.” Pop music has a “Wizard of Oz trick,” he says — few people look to see who’s pulling the levers behind the curtain. And it seems Martin is just fine with that: His last English-language profile was in Time in 2001. But his story is beginning to be told. 

Martin typically sports long hair and black clothing, a personal style remnant from his 1980s metal days. Yes, the guy who writes the Top 40 started his music career as the front man of a Swedish metal group called It’s Alive, after picking up his music skills as a child through Sweden’s after-school programs, John Seabrook writes in his new book on the music industry, The Song Machine. When he showed a knack for pop, his mentor and fellow Swede, Denniz PoP, gave him the name he uses professionally today and the chance to write and produce. Among his early successes: the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and the hit that made teenage Britney Spears an idol. Fellow producer Martin “E-Type” Eriksson remembers when Martin ran into the studio yelling that he couldn’t talk, and he created “…Baby One More Time” after the blinker in his car inspired the song’s beat. 

Maybe fame just is not what Martin really wants. Seabrook cites jantelagen, the term for Scandinavian disdain for individual celebrity. There’s certainly some evidence for that: Martin has no Twitter feed, no official Facebook page, and his company’s website looks like this. “His favorite hobby is music,” Eriksson says — going public “is usually hand in hand with a lot of problems.” After all, he’s making millions, Shelly Peiken, author of the upcoming book Confessions of a Serial Songwriter, says, while the everyday songwriter might be lucky to make $20,000 annually. 

But Martin may not be able to stay in the shadows forever. Seabrook’s book is drumming up interest, and there will be more headlines as Martin chases all-time records like most No. 1 hits. “I think it’s important to learn about [Martin] even if he doesn’t want to tell us his process,” musicologist Sloan says. Some Martin fans aren’t content to wait: About 10 years ago, some of them created an online community focused on him that still numbers in the hundreds. That’s no Belieber following, sure. But whether Martin ultimately steps out from the shadows to claim his fame or continues to leave the adulation of fans to the stars he’s helped make huge is irrelevant, Waksman says. It’s really about his music — love it or hate it. “If the song ends up being an appealing song, why should it matter?” Waksman says.