Scanning the radio for something to listen to can often feel like a chore. There have been times when the same song was playing on three different stations at once, and when something like that happens, it's hard not to lose faith in the music industry today. But, there are those rare moments when my faith in popular music is restored and I find something I truly enjoy, even if I don't want to admit it. One thing these tolerable, often irresistible songs have in common is their DNA. It's a strand that has made up popular music for over 20 years now, and that strand is named Max Martin. From "Oops!...I Did It Again" by Britney Spears to "Can't Feel My Face" by the Weeknd, it's no wonder the Swedish producer won ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year this year. Dominating the music industry like some sort of smash hit conveyor belt, it's important to take note of how Martin essentially transforms our expectations demands for popular music. With that said, his influence on our favorite artists could instill some serious artistic transformation.
Ellie Goulding's Delirium is one example of Martin penetrating yet another artist's creative process. When Baeble got the chance to do a session with Goulding, we got to see her perform songs from her 2010 debut album Lights, and seeing her play guitar while singing a stripped down version of her pop songs really shed light to her folk side. Lights had edges with an elegantly creative darkness that her latest album does echo, but doesn't quite compare. Delirium is bright, fun, and carefree. There are themes that are bleeding with Goulding's brand but are doubtlessly married with Martin's influence. Track four "Keep On Dancin'" is one song that I think demonstrates Goulding's blending with Martin. The song is going to be huge thanks to a catchy whistle that's introduced after the first verse, where she sings:
People like to talk
Because they don't know what to say
Running from the truth
Because the truth's too much to take
I keep raising glasses cause I only got today
I just keep moving
The conversation about the lack of authenticity in the world and "people" is something I think we could hear in Goulding's earlier work, but "keep raising glasses" is a lyric that with the electronic instrumentation makes this song destined to be the background music to a night out. The statements aren't as esoteric as I think they once were, but I still couldn't say a word against the pop star; she's great.
So despite Goulding's dictation that can be heard on this record, the transformation raises one question: must originality be compromised for commercial success in this industry? Goulding has mentioned in interviews that she's written lyrics on the album, and I'm only guessing she's written a lot of the melodies, but Delirium is yet another package awaiting unquestionable success that Martin has tied with a bow. Let us think about Taylor Swift's revival with 1989. Do you think credit is really due to her? T-Swift was on the outs, though she did make a slight comeback when Martin produced three songs off Red, which were the chart toppers "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "I Knew You Were Trouble," and "22." Sure, we loved those songs (at the time it was the fastest selling album in over a decade), but that love was pretty short-lived before it was on to the next for just about everybody. Swift really had to do something different, and bigger, something that would stick. So she ditched the fairy tale narrative and asserted herself with this album, with Martin co-writing nearly all of the songs off 1989.
1989 is the abandonment of "forever" and a firm grasp on "for now," a more refreshing narrative that empowers versus pities. So all Swift had to do was market the shit out of her new album, put on some glittery skirts, pay the biggest acts in music to jump on stage with her, and give good old Max Martin a ring to become the pop queen of 2015. Now, unlike Swift, who completely ditched her country roots and dramatically transformed her music beyond recognition, Goulding has always been adept at creating pop music, even in her folkish roots. With this in mind, Goulding working with Martin is only going to allow her to descend even further into a way of writing that she is already very good at doing. She has explored the EDM genre with prominent electronic artists in collaborating with ex-boyfriend Skrillex as well as Calvin Harris, and Bassnectar's remix of "Lights" was an enormous dubstep anthem. Creating music so catchy makes it pretty easy for Goulding to overlap genres, and her wispy voice just pairs well with electronic music (which explains why she appears on so many of these types of songs).
This didn't seep into her work with Martin. He reels her back into the purest of pop, shedding the alternative shadows she's cast of her earlier work, a tug of war we also hear in "Can't Feel My Face." Even when I first heard it, I couldn't believe it was the Weeknd. I was streaming Trilogy for months before "Often," hit the radio, so I had a conception about The Weeknd that was far from "Can't Feel My Face." It wasn't until I learned that the song was produced by Martin that it made sense to me. This song is off Beauty Behind the Madness, but if you ask me, the only way it suits the album is thematically. It's most definitely about a toxic romance with cocaine; I mean is it really a song by The Weeknd if it isn't about sex or drugs? This is another prime example of an artist's attempt to grasp their originality while working with a producer like Martin. Yes, The Weeknd clearly wrote this song, but it sure didn't sound anything like the rest of his music.
Maybe that's just how music will always be. Perhaps something distributed on a scale so big just doesn't have the ability to have the personal, original twinge that is the best kind of music; all we can do is hope our favorite artists fight to keep their sound alive when finding that platform...or when finding Max Martin.