Monday, April 14, 2008

4/14/08 Preaching the Gospel of Max Martin

Like others whose radio lives during high school/middle school were dominated by grunge and then the post-grunge smorgasbord (OMC - How Bizarre, because, well, why the hell not), the teen-pop boom that achieved absolute and sustained domination until Napster and file sharing sent the music industry cratering into rubble was an awesome and terrifying force to behold, definitely, but a distant one, like an exploding supernova way off in the universe. I was busy listening to Radiohead and waiting for Weezer to reunite, and pretty much cherry-picked what I thought was the best of the teen pop boom off of the rest of America's computers (O glorious Napster, I lament thee). I didn't have to endure the onslaught directly; I'm sure there are people just slightly younger than me for whom NSYNC was their NKOTB directly, as in, inescapably dominant and perhaps transcendently irritating, but me I observed from afar.

Imagine my delight, then, when the cream of the teen pop crop of singles turned out to be such a series of blissful peaks. I became (and remain) convinced that the finest singles of the early 2000s teen pop boom stand their ground with some of the finest teen pop singles of any era. Sure, Phil Spector's a sonic saint (though hardly a real life one), but I'd hold "Baby One More Time" up against half of his peak Ronettes output. The sonic trappings are different, sure, but both are defiantly maximalist for their respective eras, rearing back and slugging with the desparate haymaker force that comes from a true reaching for the stars on the backs of kids whose every moment is an epic writ large in their own minds. A parasitical enterprise, perhaps, but a devastatingly effective one.

With a little more research, then, I was awed by the fact that just as Spector's fingerprints are all over the '60s girl-group crime scene, one man had an equal impact on the best of the 2000s version - a certain Max Martin (given name: Karl Sandberg). The genius Swede absolutely owned the peak of machine-tooled 00s teen pop, and his empire didn't just stop there. Just read over the list of songs that the man wrote or co-wrote, and marvel at the magma-temperature hot streak:

Backstreet Boys: As Long as You Love Me
Backstreet Boys: Everybody (Backstreet's Back)
Backstreet Boys: I Want It That Way
Britney Spears: "...Baby One More Time"
Britney Spears: "Crazy"
Britney Spears: "Oops I Did It Again"
Bon Jovi: "It's My Life"
Kelly Clarkson: "Since U Been Gone"

That's pop domination in 8 easy steps. My favorite part of the list is final song, a song so good that I remember an article in Spin or Entertainment Weekly or some such talking about how almost every musical notable couldn't stop talking about how good it was (I remember specifically Dave Grohl being really into it), and they are absolutely right. That song kicks ass. All of them do. I don't mean in an ironic fashion, I mean these are all great pop songs. But "Since U Been Gone" is something else entirely, and to me it really sums up the genius of Martin (and his co-writer, Dr. Luke). As they tell it, they were trying to write a Strokes song. They were frustrated that all of the Strokes songs never made the big rock move, or the big pop move, or whatever you want to call it. With a nod to Potter Stewart, you know it when you hear it; it's the "Whoa-OOOH!" part of "Livin' on a Prayer", for easy reference. So they set out to write a Strokes song with a big rock move, and that was that. They did (hint: it's the beginning of the chorus, as it should be).

And what it really shows is that this guy is on another songwriting level from all of the bands that get venerated by the rock critics, and on another level from those that produce the tasteless pop that fades away after the sugar buzz wears off, because I would never argue that all pop music is great. Sometimes, obviously, it is spectacularly awful. But Martin basically said, OK all you Strokes/Vines/Datsuns/Yeah Yeah Yeahs/insert "rock is back" band here, I see what you're trying to do here, now let me DO MY THANG! And he wrote an anthemic stunner that everyone can agree is a)catchy as hell and b)a great rock song. And, more than that, it can be be karoaked to within an inch of its life, because of the cocktail of drive and energy that he melded to the usual big shiny hook. Plus it directly steals the bridge to "Maps", which is kind of shameful, but also kind of awesome. And in so doing he wrote a better song than the Strokes ever did, while performing the valuable service of reminding anyone with ears that the best songs, and the best bands, and the best songwriters, have at one time another just closed their eyes and tried to knock it out of the whole damn ballpark.

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