Here's a pop quiz—literally. What do all of the musicians in all of these categories have in common?
Divas du jour Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, P!nk and Avril Lavigne.
American Idol alumni Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry.
Boy bands Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.
The hip-hop and R&B contingent of Taio Cruz, B.o.B., Usher, Pitbull, Flo Rida, T.I. and Ciara.
Teen TV stars Vanessa Hudgens and Miranda Cosgrove.
Alt-rockers/metalers Weezer, Bullet for My Valentine and Simple Plan.
Old-schoolers Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Celine Dion, Cyndi Lauper and Ace of Base.
Answer? Every single one of them has had at least one song written, co-written or produced by one of two men you've likely never heard of: Max Martin and Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald. Together, these writer/producers have laid down tracks that since 1994 represent sales in the hundreds of millions. And that's gained them untold influence over our individual musical tastes … and our culture at large.
The past year has been especially fruitful for Martin and Dr. Luke. They co-wrote three No. 1 hits for Katy Perry ("California Gurls," "Teenage Dream" and "E.T."), two Top 5 tracks for Britney Spears ("Hold It Against Me" and "Till the World Ends"), and one No. 2 hit for Taio Cruz ("Dynamite"). Martin co-wrote and produced Usher's "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love," which peaked at No. 4, and Adam Lambert's Top 10 track "Whataya Want From Me." Dr. Luke co-wrote and produced Ke$ha's smash debut "TiK ToK," as well as Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A."
All told, in the last five years Dr. Luke has written and/or produced a whopping 20 No. 1 songs, output that equals The Beatles' record in this category. For his part, Martin has had a hand in 11 chart-topping hits. It's no wonder the two were crowned Songwriters of the Year by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in April.
Forget about Lady Gaga's and Justin Bieber's ubiquitous pop-culture presence. Perhaps no one in the music industry—and maybe the entertainment world as a whole—wields as much power to shape hearts and minds as these two behind-the-music maestros.
And that makes me want to know more about them. A lot more about them.
He Came From Sweden
The man now known as Max Martin, born Martin Karl Sandberg in 1971, grew up in a Stockholm suburb. And his musical story draws from diverse directions. Infatuated with his older brother's KISS cassettes, Martin took up … the French horn. Then drums. Then singing. Eventually he became the frontman of the Swedish glam metal band It's Alive (which, ironically, didn't live very long). After rehearsals, though, Martin would surreptitiously sneak behind the mic at Cheiron Studios to record pop songs he'd written. His band had no interest in such saccharine fare, but the head of Cheiron, producer Denniz Pop, did. Soon Pop invited Martin into an apprenticeship of sorts (and suggested his new name, too).
"I didn't even know what a producer did," Martin told Time in its March 2001 cover story "The Hit Man." "I spent two years day and night in that studio trying to learn what the h‑‑‑ was going on." But learn he did. Martin's first big project: co-producing Ace of Base's second album, The Bridge.
And then … the big time. Martin's path soon intersected with two acts that would define pop music's sound and trajectory as the millennium came to a close: Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. If you ever lie awake at night wondering who's responsible for that infectious groove that changed Britney from a Mouse House rep to the sexy siren who was always ready to do it "… Baby One More Time," Martin is your man. And when he wasn't working with Britney, he was busy contributing to the majority of the Backstreet Boys' songs, not to mention tunes from 'N Sync ("I Want You Back"), Celine Dion ("That's the Way It Is") and, returning to his rock roots, Bon Jovi ("It's My Life"). It was a remarkable stretch of music-manufacturing magic that earned Martin ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year award three years running (from 1999 to 2001), a feat never accomplished before.
Then, in 2004, he met a guitar-playing producer named Lukasz Gottwald.
It Sounds Like He Came From Sweden
Looking a bit like Hugh Grant's little brother, the man named Lukasz Gottwald should have come from Sweden, too. But in fact he was born in Rhode Island and spent his formative years in New York City. When his parents put the kibosh on teenage drummer dreams, he picked up the guitar. His next musical forays? Attending Manhattan School of Music and then gigging as Saturday Night Live's house band guitarist from 1997 to 2007.
In the evenings, Gottwald worked on remixes and moonlighted as a DJ—which is where his path crossed Martin's. The pair met at a house party Gottwald was working, and Martin drafted him for a tour of NYC's nightclubs. A friendship was born … and then a partnership. Their first endeavor together: "Since You've Been Gone," recorded by Kelly Clarkson.
In his extensive profile of Gottwald, New York magazine contributor Adam Sternbergh says of that serendipitous moment, "The song … represented a breakthrough (for Clarkson); a comeback (for Martin); and an attention-grabbing calling card for a producer who, during a hip-hop session with Mos Def, had picked up a nickname: 'Dr. Luke.'" It was the first of two massive hits Martin and Dr. Luke would pen for Clarkson (the other being "Behind These Hazel Eyes").
Feelin' Good … and Gettin' Naughty
One significant part of the pair's hitmaking formula is the fact that almost all of their songs thrive on a feel-good vibe. "I want to make songs that reach a lot of people and are fun and spread joy," Dr. Luke says. "You can make depressing music, that's cool, and maybe I'll want to do that sometime. But for now, I want fun stuff."
Clarkson's "Since You've Been Gone" is a the perfect example, an up-tempo break-up anthem in which an aggrieved woman lyrically pummels her ex: "But since you've been gone," Clarkson screams, "I can breathe for the first time/I'm so movin' on/Yeah yeah." It's a raucous message of overcoming that anyone who's ever been dumped can relate to.
And the duo's extensive catalog is literally bursting with similarly buoyant—if often superficial—songs about having a good time. Taio Cruz's explosive "Dynamite," for example, promises, "'Cause I told you once/Now I told you twice/We gon' light it up/Like it's dynamite."
This stuff isn't all innocuous, of course. In fact, Dr. Luke and Max Martin have helped write and produce some of the most problematic hits of the last half-decade when it comes to undermining traditional mores, from sexuality to profanity to attitudes toward alcohol.
P!nk's "F**kin' Perfect" (co-written by Martin) topped the charts, despite the glaring f-word in its titled and chorus (in the uncensored version). Martin also had a hand in Avril Lavigne's breezy embrace of promiscuity and rebellion called "What the H‑‑‑." And then there's Katy Perry's anthems to lesbian exploration ("I Kissed a Girl"), having sex and smoking pot on the beach ("California Gurls"), and carnal teen fantasies ("Teenage Dream"). Group sex? Britney's "3" has that foul base covered. Strip clubs? Flo Rida's "Right Round." Masturbation? P!nk tells an ex to go home and do exactly that on "U + Ur Hand." All of those songs can be traced back to these guys. And if you have a sudden urge to brush your teeth "with a bottle of Jack," you can credit Ke$ha … and Dr. Luke.
A few lyrics from P!nk's "Raise Your Glass" (another Martin effort) effectively summarize the pair's public position on worldview: "What part of party don't you understand?/ … So raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways."
The Ingredients of Influence
Clearly, Max Martin and Dr. Luke exercise an extraordinary level of influence when it comes to molding listeners'—especially young listeners'—ideas about what's right and good and normal. Normal folks don't party all night and scrub their nubs with whiskey. But you'd never know it listening to Ke$ha.
Neither is it normal for two men to have such an outsized impact on all of us. And despite all the negativity that they've wrought, and will continue to wreak, while researching their stories I couldn't help but notice—and admire—the ingredients that constitute their success. So instead of continuing to dwell on their legacy—something that will speak for itself as Plugged In continues to review songs and albums influenced by them—I'm going to attempt to correlate what they've done with ours. Those of us hoping to influence our world would do well to notice and emulate three specific commitments that have undergirded Max Martin's and Dr. Luke's hitmaking endeavors:
A commitment to excellence. Neither of these men quit before the music they're working on is perfect. In 2001, Martin told Time that he always carries a pocket recorder to capture ideas, and that perhaps only one idea in 300 makes it to the demo stage. While working on "Oops! … I Did It Again," Martin noted, "After a week … I realized it sounded like s‑‑‑. … That's when you get psycho. That's when you get manic." Two weeks of 18-hour days later, he and his production team had completely reworked the song. Dr. Luke's approach is similar: "The one consistent thing is I keep going until it's right. I don't give up."
A commitment to their craft. Bolstering that work ethic, Dr. Luke exhibits an almost compulsive attention to the craft of songwriting. That means big doses of curiosity, attentiveness and humble teachability. "I analyze songs, think about what made them work, why they did work," he says. For aspiring songwriters, he advises, "Find people you really love and listen to them and learn from them. I did a lot of analytical listening when I was first starting. I'm still always listening to things and checking them out. I'm surrounded by people who are really excited about what they're doing. I get to learn and teach and all that stuff. It's great."
A commitment to collaboration. Both of these producers work hard to help others succeed. Britney Spears says of Martin's approach, "[He] gets exactly what I am saying when I tell him what I want and don't want musically. … There is nobody I feel more comfortable collaborating with in the studio." In a separate interview, she noted, "He's hard on you with the vocals. Then you hear it, you're like, 'Oh d‑‑n! I'm so glad. … It sounds so good!" Likewise, Dr. Luke told National Public Radio, "Basically I feel like my role is to find great songs with the artists, for the artists, and have them shine."
Those are the elements, then, that can change the world. Add God into the mix and absolutely nothing can stop you, I'd conclude, whether your world is your family and a few friends, or it's millions of fans spanning the globe.
Barring some personal flameout or disaster, it's likely Max Martin and Dr. Luke will keep pumping up the jams for today's biggest performers. And so their ongoing presence on the pop charts offers a sobering yet challenging case study on the nature of influence—namely how two guys few people have ever heard of have shaped a generation.