Annotated Playlist: Max Martin #1s

Original airdate: 12/3/19

Spotify playlist and Apple Music playlist.

Here are links to the Katy Perry live performances I played (for FCC reasons) in place of a few recorded songs: I Kissed a Girl, California Gurls, E.T. feat. Kanye West, Roar.

Max Martin is probably the most successful mainstream pop producer and songwriter of the last two decades. He defined the sound of pop hits around the turn of the millenium and during the early 2010s, mentored several other prolific producers, and has collaborated with dozens of artists across every subgenre of pop imaginable. 

Martin wrote and produced the hits for Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift that cemented all three of them them as pop icons. One of the most accurate quotes I’ve ever read about his work comes from Jody Rosen, a critic for Rolling Stone, who wrote that “You can measure a singer’s place in the pop-star pecking order by the quality of the Max Martin song they release.”

Martin has written and/or produced *73* US top 10 hits, 22 of those songs reaching #1. In the US, he has the third-most number ones as a songwriter, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and the second most number ones as a producer, behind only honorary fifth Beatle (and coincidentally named) George Martin. This list is a celebration, analysis, and history of all 22 of those songs.

Britney Spears – …Baby One More Time

Max Martin is Swedish, and he grew up in Sweden studying music and singing in various bands. In the mid 1990s, his glam metal band, called It’s Alive, was signed to Cheiron Records, and Martin began working with the producer Denniz Pop, who spent several years mentoring him and teaching him the basics of production. Denniz Pop and Martin’s first released production was a single by Rednex (with an X), the Swedish novelty group who put out a techno remix of Cotton Eyed Joe and became one hit wonders in the US (but had, wildly, more success in Europe).

During this time, Martin also worked with, among others, Bryan Adams, Robyn, Celine Dion, and the Backstreet Boys, including the latter’s singles “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “I Want It That Way.” Martin worked most frequently with the Backstreet Boys at their peak from 1996 to 2000, but continued collaborating with them off and on until 2013. Thanks in large part to Martin’s style, the Backstreet Boys were one of the groups that defined the sound of millennium pop, as was Britney Spears.

“Baby One More Time” was the first song I ever played on Pop Excellence, and its status as Martin’s first chart-topping hit was one of the reasons I chose it as the inaugural song. There’s not much I can say about this iconic track that hasn’t already been said: it is both Britney Spears’ debut single and the best-selling song of her career, it made her an instant star, and it cemented the millennium pop sound that artists like Backstreet, NSYNC, Christina Aguilera, and Britney would follow in the years to come. And, at its core, “Baby One More Time” is just a fantastic song.

NSYNC – It’s Gonna Be Me

This song is one of two on the playlist today that Max Martin wrote but didn’t produce: “Gonna Be” was produced solely by Rami Yacoub. Yacoub was Martin’s production partner from 1998 to 2008, and is credited alongside Martin on dozens of songs (the two split amicably as studio collaborators in 2008). Some of the pair’s highest profile work was on Britney Spears’ first three albums, writing and producing not just “Baby One More Time” but also “Oops! I Did It Again,” “Lucky,” “Stronger,” “Overprotected,” and more.

Max Martin checked almost every production box when it came to boy bands around the turn of the millennium: he worked not just with the Backstreet Boys, but with NSYNC and British boy band Westlife. Martin worked with NSYNC between 1998 and 2001, and earned this songwriting #1 from their collaborations. 

One of Max Martin’s signatures is his massive choruses. Yes, big choruses are kind of the foundation of pop music, but few people can do them like Martin does. His choruses know how to hit just right: loud but not overwhelming, catchy but never too repetitive. One of the tricks he uses to keep choruses interesting is making alterations to the final, post-bridge chorus of the song. Sometimes he changes the main melody (this often happened in his songs during the Backstreet/Britney/NSYNC period), sometimes he just adds the singer’s adlibs over the usual chorus, but there’s almost always a new feel to his final choruses, and that’s definitely on display here.

Another quick melody trick to note: the hook of this song gets sung two different ways, for maximum catchiness! You hear it at the end of the chorus, but it also gets sung in the second verse in a simpler, less affected way.

Katy Perry – I Kissed A Girl

Martin didn’t have any #1s between 2000 and 2008, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t creatively active: he got 4 more top 10s during those years and worked with artists like Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, P!nk, Avril Lavigne, and Daughtry.

During this time, Martin also began mentoring Lukasz Gottwald, a producer also known as Dr. Luke. Yes, I know, uh oh. Dr. Luke has become more or less a persona non grata in the music industry since Kesha accused him of sexual assault and emotional and physical abuse several years ago, but beyond this mention, I am not touching that conflict in any way here. It’s a serious accusation tied up in a messy and unresolved legal battle, and it’s way out of the scope of this week’s theme. I am on Kesha’s side: this is just to say that Dr. Luke also produced and wrote many of the upcoming songs.

Max Martin wrote his first #1 in 8 years in 2008, and it also happened to be the song that made Katy Perry a star: “I Kissed a Girl” was her first #1 and, in practice, her debut single. Like “It’s Gonna Be Me,” this is the second of two songs today that Martin wrote but did not produce.

I know I Kissed a Girl is a controversial song, but in depth lyrical analysis of LGBT representation is also not really in my wheelhouse for this theme. But, over a decade later, I think much of the consensus around it is that the song was and still is problematic, with a couple lines wrongly painting bisexuality as something shameful and rebellious that definitely should have been written more respectfully. But at the least, it started a conversation about LGBT representation at a time when it was less prevalent in mainstream media and pop music, and that dialogue has evolved into something much less problematic today, to a point where this song is best left as a relic of the past.

I do wish “I Kissed A Girl” had been about something entirely different so it didn’t have this controversy attached to it (though I doubt it would have been as big a hit), because I really enjoy the production: pop-rock Katy Perry had a great sound. 

P!nk – So What

P!nk first worked with Max Martin on her 2006 singles “Who Knew” and “U and Ur Hand” (both good, classic songs). They worked together again on her 2008 album, and Billboard actually lists this track as P!nk’s biggest chart hit. I appreciate that chronologically, “So What” comes directly after “I Kissed a Girl,” because they’re both working with the same pop-rock sound.

Kelly Clarkson – My Life Would Suck Without You

This song completes what is guess is Martin’s #1 pop-rock trifecta. Kelly Clarkson has worked on exactly three songs with Max Martin and has gotten exactly three hits out of it. They first worked together (along with Dr. Luke) on her 2004 album Breakaway, on the singles “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Since You’ve Been Gone” (the latter is probably Clarkson’s most iconic song, and was apparently first written by Martin with Pink in mind, but SUBG peaked at #2!). Then, at the very beginning of 2009, Clarkson released another song written with and produced by Martin and Dr. Luke—one with that signature massive Max Martin chorus—which became the second #1 song of her career.

Britney Spears – 3

Max Martin and Rami Yacoub were instrumental in launching Britney Spears’ career, but in 2003, while recording her next album, Spears decided to move in a different musical direction and did not work with them on her fourth or fifth albums. However, Martin returned for her sixth album, Circus, maybe because Circus was intended to be Spears’ return to music after her infamous breakdown and her team wanted a reliable hitmaker. He worked on the album’s third single, the completely innocuously titled “If U Seek Amy.” This was also one of the first times Martin worked with his new production partner Shellback, a fellow Swedish writer and producer who also cowrote Pink’s “So What.” Shellback, whose name will come up much more in future songs, is still working with Martin today but has also produced on his own for artists like Tove Lo, the Jonas Brothers, and Maroon 5.

A year after Circus, Martin and Shellback wrote and produced the new single off a Britney Spears greatest hits compilation. Unlike some songs designed to promote greatest hits albums, the single had a lot of chart success, becoming Spears’ 3rd #1 song (a very amusing coincidence). In 2009, “3” was the first song in over (ha) three years to debut at #1, and the first song by a non-American Idol artist to do so in eleven years. 

Katy Perry – California Gurls (feat. Snoop Dogg)

“California Girls” is a big milestone in this playlist: it’s the first #1 off Katy Perry’s 2010 album Teenage Dream. Teenage Dream is tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the most #1 singles off an album (with five), and if you count Teenage Dream’s 2012 reissue, Perry breaks that record with six #1 singles from one album. That is a massive pop culture achievement, and it’s difficult to imagine it ever being replicated again. And, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, Max Martin (as well as Dr. Luke) was behind almost all of those #1s (the only one he wasn’t responsible for was Firework).

Katy Perry – Teenage Dream

There are some specific songs on this playlist that I really like, but I think “Teenage Dream” is the best track out of all Max Martin’s 22 #1s. I think it’s a perfect pop song, actually. There’s so much to love about it: how Max Martin and his collaborators find the perfect balance between power and dreaminess in the production (Katy Perry’s vocals help set that mood too); how the lyrics perfectly encapsulate and combine the tropes of nostalgia for your youth and falling headfirst into a relationship; how the simple guitar riff keeps the song in constant motion; how the bridge masterfully escalates the emotions of the song into that huge final chorus. 

Also notice how, like in “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the song’s title is sung two different ways—syncopated in the chorus, but smooth and on the beat in the bridge—so it worms its way even deeper into your head.

“Teenage Dream” is one of the crowning songs of Katy Perry’s career, and it’s the perfect title track for her most successful album.

P!nk – Raise Your Glass

Other artists Martin worked with during the early 2010s include Adam Lambert, Kesha, Taio Cruz (remember “Dynamite”?), Usher (remember “DJ Got Us Falling in Love”?), Avril Lavigne, the Glee Cast (yeah, really), Jessie J, and many more.

Martin also did more work with P!nk in 2010: he and Shellback wrote and produced two new singles meant to promote her greatest hits album. Surprisingly, both of these singles were successful —“Perfect” went top 10 and “Raise Your Glass” hit #1—and, I think, are still decently remembered today.

Britney Spears – Hold It Against Me

After the success of “3,” Martin and Shellback continued working with Britney Spears on her seventh album, Femme Fatale. They wrote and produced all four singles from it (plus some deep cuts), including “Hold It Against Me,” the 2011 lead single that became Spears’ fourth #1 song. The breakdown in its bridge is one of the best examples of dubstep reaching mainstream pop. And, of course, the other great example of dubstep-lite pop in the 2010s is “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift, which Martin and Shellback also produced.

Katy Perry – E.T. (ft. Kanye West)

Now we’re back to Katy Perry number ones for a bit: to keep track, “E.T.” was her third #1 from Teenage Dream. As is par for the course, it has a big, synthy chorus, although Martin and Dr. Luke’s production on this is a lot more unusual than a lot of stuff off the album, more electronic and glitchy than the bubbly pop sound you’d expect. But I really like this song’s sound and think it fits the otherworldly lyrics well.

The album version of this song is just Katy’s vocals, but it got a remix with Kanye West when it was released as a single, so he’s here too. The most interesting parts of his verse are the corny, awkwardly sexual lines, which aren’t actually good, but are amusing to observe from a distance—but hey, at least Kanye wrote his lines to match the theme of the song: that’s not always a guarantee for guest verses.

Katy Perry – Last Friday Night

We’re still continuing with Katy Perry: a history of Max Martin’s #1 singles is in large part a history of Perry’s career!

This is also a good spot to mention another Katy Perry collaborator who was instrumental to her success in the Teenage Dream era: songwriter Bonnie McKee. McKee tried in the early 2000s to establish a career as a singer, but after her solo efforts failed, she found massive success a few years later as a songwriter for other artists. McKee has writing credits on “Hold It Against Me” by Britney Spears, “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz, and “C’Mon” by Kesha, and in the early 2010s, she also worked with Adam Lambert, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ellie Goulding, Kelly Clarkson, and 5 Seconds of Summer. But, of course, she’s best known for her work with Katy Perry—Bonnie McKee helped write “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” and “Last Friday Night.” As a songwriter, she was perfect at channeling the carefree, bubbly attitude that Katy Perry’s music called for, and along with Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s writing and production, Bonnie McKee was a big reason for the success of many Teenage Dream singles..

Katy Perry – Part of Me

As the entire first half of this playlist has demonstrated, Teenage Dream was a massive album era—measured in #1 singles, it was the biggest in history. Six of its nine singles reached #1, and two of the songs that didn’t peaked at #3 and #2. Katy Perry’s team did a brilliant job of rolling out singles: they released videos, did remixes, booked performances, and sent and pulled songs from radio at just the right times. Of course, those tactics wouldn’t all work the same way today, since streaming has made it more difficult to push singles after an album’s already been released. But it was a legendary time for pop music.

“Part of Me” is finally our last single from Teenage Dream (but not the last we’ll hear from Katy Perry). The album was reissued in 2012, two years after its release, with three new songs. Two of those new songs, both written with Bonnie McKee, were made singles, and one of them topped the charts (because what could be a better sendoff to this album era?). Again, if you count the original Teenage Dream and its reissue as the same album, then Katy Perry beats Michael Jackson’s Thriller to hold the record for most #1 songs off a single album, with six. “Part of Me” was actually the only one of those six songs to debut at #1, instead of gradually rising to the top.

Maroon 5 – One More Night

I was kind of surprised to see “One More Night” on the list of Martin’s #1s, because several years after its release, it feels mostly forgotten. However, it is significant because of who worked with Martin to write and produce this. His usual 2010s production partner Shellback is here, but so is a new name on this playlist: Savan Kotecha (Coh-teh-cha), a producer and songwriter from Texas. Starting in the late 2000s, Martin and Kotecha have worked together frequently, writing and producing for acts like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ellie Goulding, The Weeknd, and, most prominently in the last few years, Ariana Grande.

Some other producers Martin’s worked with frequently in the 2010s include Ilya Salmanzadeh, Oscar Holter, and Ali Payami—Martin has built a whole cohort of collaborators, all of them talented in their own right, who generally work with the same kind of synthy, structured, Scandinavian pop format that Martin prefers.

Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Taylor Swift is here, guys. I mean, she’s here just in general, but it’s also time for her first song in the list. I mentioned at the top that Martin helped launch Swift’s pop career: she obviously was succeeding in country long before her 2012 album Red, but her work with Martin and Shellback on that album is what pushed her into being a genuine pop star.

“Never Ever” is important for several reasons: it was Taylor’s first undeniable foray into pop, it was her first released collaboration with Martin, and it was her first #1 single ever. Yes, she was six years into her career before her first chart-topping song, and it was the track that set the mold for all her attention-grabbing, self-assured lead singles to come.

Max Martin and Shellback also produced and helped write “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” from the same album, both of which were also released and became singles that cemented Taylor’s status as a main pop girl.

Katy Perry – Roar

Going back to Katy Perry: Max Martin has worked with her for all four of her album eras, and we’ve now reached her third album, Prism. “Roar,” Prism’s lead single, was the center of some very niche pop music drama when it came out (not including the awkward but likely unintentional similarities to Sara Bareilles’s “Brave”). Perry and Lady Gaga both dropped the lead singles for their new albums on the same day in August 2013, and stans had a field day pitting the two against each other. Because Perry’s song is on the playlist today, it obviously “won” and charted higher than Gaga’s track “Applause,” though it took several weeks for this song to actually climb to #1 (that was during the unfortunate reign of “Blurred Lines.” Petition to refer to summer 2013 as Harassed Girl Summer?). Unsurprisingly, as it’s a bubbly Katy Perry hit, Bonnie McKee has a writing credit on this song, as does (awkward boos) Martin’s ex-prodigy Dr. Luke.

Katy Perry – Dark Horse

We’ve finally reached our last Katy Perry song of the day: number 8 out of 8, “Dark Horse.” Billboard actually lists this as her biggest Hot 100 hit ever, so it’s a very appropriate #1 to end Perry’s run. 

The usual info applies here, as Max Martin wrote and produced along with Dr. Luke (and some other collaborators), but the most relevant thing about this song is the trial that took place this summer. To sum up the details very quickly: Christian rapper Flame filed a lawsuit accusing Perry and her co-writers of copyright infringement, saying that they copied his 2008 Grammy-nominated song “Joyful Noise.” The allegedly copied section is the descending synthy drop at the end of “Dark Horse”’s chorus. The case was filed years ago and finally went to trial this July, and the jury found Perry, Martin, Luke, and co. guilty of infringement, to the tune of almost $3 million in damages.

Reactions to the jury’s decision have been overwhelming negative: the supposedly copied synth melody is very simple – literally just going down a few notes on a scale – and could easily have been parallel thought, and the synth sound designs aren’t even similar. A lot of people in the music community don’t love that random jurors were forced to make important decisions about music theory, and comparisons have been made to the infamous 2015 Blurred Lines case, which many people argue has set a dangerous precedent for over-policing of unproven copyright infringement. There’s much more comprehensive reading and discussion about it on the internet, but it’s absolutely the biggest talking point for this song. Feel free to listen to “Joyful Noise” and decide for yourself.

Taylor Swift – Shake It Off

You know “Shake It Off.” It was the lead single for Taylor Swift’s 2014 album, 1989, which along with Teenage Dream was one of the most successful and iconic albums of the 2010s. 1989 was Swift on top of the world, during what some might call her imperial phase, and this single is what kicked it all off. 

Like every Swift lead single since “Never Getting Back Together,” it has a spoken bridge (seriously, every lead since 2012 has had one) and brazenly shrugged off Swift’s haters and established her as a force of personality. 

“Shake It Off” has grown on me a lot over the years: it’s not that I ever hated it, but I’ve learned to appreciate the song as the simple, feel-good bop it is. It’s impressive how quickly the production hooks you into the song – even the beginning drums are instantly recognizable. Also, I saw this live on the reputation tour, and yeah it absolutely went off and was a giant party.

Taylor Swift – Bad Blood (ft. Kendrick Lamar)

1989 was the commercial and celebrity peak of Taylor Swift’s career, and a large part of her chart dominance was due to her work with Max Martin and Shellback: those two know how to craft a perfect pop song, and Swift knew how to twist her country songwriting into a more hook-oriented but still meaningful approach to pop. Along with a few album cuts, Martin and Shellback produced almost every single from 1989 – “Shake It Off,” “Style,” “Blank Space,” “Wildest Dreams,” “New Romantics,” and “Bad Blood” (which is probably the least compelling of those singles, but it hit #1, so here we are. It does have a nice bridge, though).

Essentially a precursor to reputation, “I’m angry about drama” Swift emerges on “Bad Blood,” so it’s the perfect time to talk about Max Martin and Shellback’s work with Taylor after the 1989 era. The pair worked on a little over half of her 2017 album reputation, including the singles “Ready For It,” “End Game,” and (my personal favorite) “Delicate.: However, Martin doesn’t appear at all on Taylor’s newest album Lover – his role of hitmaker has been replaced by other high-profile producers like Jack Antonoff, Joel Little, and Louis Bell in a passing of the torch moment. Maybe Martin and Swift will work together again in the future, but for now, his involvement on Red, 1989, and reputation feels like a satisfying trilogy.

The Weeknd – Can’t Feel My Face

The Weeknd started his career as an alt-R&B artist releasing dark, angry, sexual mixtapes, so Max Martin was a surprising collaborator for him. But it worked out well: this track got a lot of critical acclaim for good reason. Martin and co-producer Ali Payami are at the top of their game here—their production is slick, groovy (that bass!), and alternately minimalist and explosive at just the right moments. Even coming from an at-the-time relatively unknown artist, “Can’t Feel My Face” sounded like an undeniable hit.

Justin Timberlake – Can’t Stop the Feeling

Other artists Martin worked with in the 2010s include Carly Rae Jepsen, Shakira, Demi Lovato, Ellie Goulding, Adele, Lana del Rey, and Ariana Grande. His most recent projects have all been songwriting: a few tracks on Ed Sheeran’s new collab album, Sam Smith’s new single “How Do You Sleep,” and Normani’s debut solo single “Motivation.” These days, Martin often turns production over to frequent collaborators like Ilya and Savan Kotecha. 

“Can’t Stop the Feeling” is his most recent #1, from 2016: Martin’s streak of writing at least one chart-topper a year started in 2008 and was finally broken eight years later.

Taylor Swift – Blank Space

There’s no doubt in my mind that this last song is Taylor Swift’s best #1: I specifically moved it to the end, out of chronological order, so that I could have a great closer. The writing is perfect, the production is perfect, the release was at the perfect time in fall 2014, post-“Shake It Off,” to capitalize on the attention Swift had gotten for fully going pop: everything came together for this song to be a triumph.

Martin and Shellback’s production here is slick and dynamic without being overwhelming, and that’s important, because the lyrics are undoubtedly the centerpiece. Before reputation, this song was the peak of Taylor Swift addressing her, well, reputation, and the wit and sarcasm on display here felt much fresher in 2014. It’s impressive how much content there is in the chorus, how many separate images and ideas there are, yet how catchy and memorable every line feels. Swift puts her all into the vocals too: you can hear her grinning on “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” and rolling her eyes during the bridge. Arguably, out of all of both Max Martin and Taylor Swift’s #1 songs, “Blank Space” best combined their desire for commercial appeal with their intuition for creating compelling, masterful, and subtly unique pop.

Max Martin has weathered two decades of the music industry, alternately following trends and setting his own and bolstering the careers of stars like Britney Spears, P!nk, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift. He is perhaps the most important and successful producer in contemporary pop music, and though his career is no longer at its impossible highs of the early 2010s, he’s still a relevant and dependable hitmaker. He’s written 22 Billboard #1 hits, a record beaten only by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and produced 20 of those #1s. There may be another #1 in Martin’s future – he’s well-connected and talented, so it’s very possible, and he did get to #2 with Ariana Grande this spring. Or the rise of streaming may simply be moving the charts away from his brand of radio-ready pop. Either way, Max Martin has nothing left to prove.

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