If Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, then Max Martin is the Lord of Pop, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ve never even heard his name. Martin has crafted the majority of the songs you hear on the radio. He’s written and co-written 19 chart-topping singles, from Britney Spears’ “…Baby one more time,” to the more recent Taylor Swift hits “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off.” But more importantly, all these songs follow the exact same structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown, chorus, with the occasional addition of a feature from Kanye West and Juicy J. I even made a playlist so you can see for yourself. Check it out:
Martin created a cookie cutter model for songs, and it’s bred a myriad of hits over the past two decades. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Especially if it makes you worth upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars. Just don’t deviate from this template at all, and you’re a pop star. So I guess the question I ask after finding all this is: Is music really a valid form of artistic expression or is it just a commodity?
I had this conversation with a friend earlier in the week, and he pointed out that earlier in the history of popular music, someone like Shel Silverstein, famed writer of children’s books like The Giving Tree, was known not only as a writer, but also as a singer and songwriter.
Go grab the liner notes from one of your favorite albums.
For me, it was Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” We’ll look at the track “Power” as an example. The first credited writer is obviously Kanye, but following his name are a slew of musicians, including members of progressive rock band King Crimson, J Dilla collaborator Andwele Gardner, Jeff Bhasker and Symbolyc 1. This just goes to show that there are a multitude of songwriters and producers that go into writing songs today.
Having a multitude of writers involved in the songwriting process is in direct contrast with the old way of writing songs, evidenced in albums like The Beatles’ “Revolver.” In this album, the 14 tracks are all individually credited to one of the members of the band, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney having written the majority of the tracks.
Does this make The Beatles’ music inherently better than that of our lord and savior Yeezus? No. The world of music is ever evolving, and artists like Kanye have much more at their disposal now than bands like the Beatles had. For instance, the practice of music sampling in hip-hop, or any genre, for that matter, wasn’t popularized until around the late ’70s and early ’80s.
It also should be said that many times, some artists are more of a representation of a group of people creating music. Taylor Swift, for example. Swift’s 2010 release “Speak Now” was written entirely by Swift herself, and she co-produced the record, whereas on her most recent LP, “1989,” she is only credited with writing one song, “This Love,” solo. “1989” was executive produced by none other than Max Martin and featured a host of other writers as well. This is the case with many artists, including Ariana Grande, Chris Brown and Justin Bieber. I think what makes these artists so desirable in their own ways is the raw talent they each possess. Ariana Grande has the voice of Mariah Carey, Chris Brown can dance his a** off and Justin Bieber has the public eye locked on him enough that he doesn’t really need a talent.
I think the conclusion I’m coming to is that singer-songwriters as individuals are becoming much less prevalent in popular music. The talent of being able to play an instrument or sing is very different from actually being able to compose a song, and I think the distribution of those talents between a few different people in a group is actually a good thing in the long run.
So to bring it back around to the original question: No, music is not becoming a commodity. The world of music is always changing, and it’s moving towards the separation of the singer-songwriter into two or more separate entities. I guess Max Martin isn’t that bad of a guy, anyhow.
Have a fantastic Tuesday.