Thursday 22 August 2019

The secret hitmakers behind 'samey' pop

You have probably never heard of Max Martin, yet he's third in the all-time list of songwriters who've scored number ones, and one of a small number of writer-producers churning out hits in an increasingly formulaic music industry, laments our music critic

Behind the scenes: Jack Antonoff and Greg Kurstin have worked with many of today's big stars
Behind the scenes: Jack Antonoff and Greg Kurstin have worked with many of today's big stars
Clinical approach: Max Martin
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was hard to escape Fun in the early months of 2012. The US trio, who had had little impact on this side of the world until that point, suddenly were responsible for a massive crossover indie-pop hit. 'We Are Young' featured the vocals of Janelle Monáe and would go on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year.

Much of the attention at the time was on the band's frontman, Nate Ruess, who co-wrote the song. Few could have named the band's guitarist, Jack Antonoff, who had also had a hand in penning this de-facto anthem.

Fast-forward five years and many would still struggle to pick Antonoff out of a line-up. This slight, geeky and bespectacled individual can go about his business without being bothered by autograph hunters although he sometimes finds himself in the paparazzi's glare whenever he steps out with his girlfriend, Girls creator Lena Dunham.

Yet, the New Jersey native has, by stealth, become a massive player in today's pop world. He is one of the most in-demand writer-producers in the business. And he's been everywhere - it seems - in 2017.

Clinical approach: Max Martin
Clinical approach: Max Martin

Antonoff was the key writer for Taylor Swift's massive-selling Reputation. He also penned most of the songs on the new Lorde album and he had a part in three of the tracks on the latest offering from St Vincent.

The first two will ensure his bank balance will swell yet further while the latter gives him a foothold in the critically acclaimed territory that St Vincent finds herself in (although Lorde and Swift have released a pair of very good albums).

There's no question that Antonoff has talents way beyond Fun, or his current band, Bleachers. His skill for writing for others first became apparent in 2013 when he delivered a slice of ear-worm pop, 'Brave', for Sara Bareilles, or the brilliant 'Out of the Woods' for Taylor Swift's all-conquering 1989. But Antonoff has quickly become ubiquitous as a go-to songwriter-for-hire and is inadvertently helping to ensure that a lot of contemporary pop - even the good stuff - is becoming samey and homogenised.

A glance through the credits for major albums in pop, R&B, rap and even rock reveals that the same names, time and again. And it's getting very tiresome.

It is impossible, for instance, to escape the influence of Greg Kurstin in today's chart music. The American helped make Adele the biggest selling new act of the century, and has the Grammys to prove it, but his input is everywhere.

In the past 12 months, he has written or co-written songs for (deep breath) Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Halsey, Niall Horan and Sia - herself no slouch in the songwriting game, but more on her later - as well as rock royalty like Liam Gallagher, Foo Fighters and Beck.

More than most, Kurstin's style has helped popularise the idea of Spotify-ready tracks - in other words, songs that get off the blocks superfast and defy the listener from swiping to the next one. Tegan and Sara's formidable Love You to Death is a case in point - each of the 10 tracks hits the sweet spot straight away and they can thank Kurstin for that. His fingerprints are all over it. In fact, such is his ubiquity, it's sometimes hard not to think that even with the top tunes, we're not getting the person who's name and face adorns the cover, but rather Kurstin himself. For a period earlier this year, it felt as if I was listening to a new album every single week that Kurstin had had some part in. No matter how good a writer you are, that has to lead to homogeneity and, sure enough, the structure and production felt samier than it should have.

The same argument can be levelled at Max Martin, the Swede who, incredibly, ranks third in the all-time list of songwriters who've scored US number ones. Only Paul McCartney and John Lennon stand in front of him and it would be a brave soul to bet on Martin - formerly the frontman of the barely remembered metal band, It's Alive - not adding to the 22 number ones he's managed to date, most recently Justin Timberlake's 'Can't Stop the Feeling!'

Martin's 2017 credits include the aforementioned Reputation from Taylor Swift and Katy Perry's latest album, Witness, and he's famed for taking a very clinical approach to songwriting and production. Unlike Antonoff, who's all about gut instinct and feeling, Martin is revered for producing in an almost scientific manner, taking care with every single second of the songs he's responsible for.

Recently, New Yorker journalist John Seabrook published an absorbing book about the big-name writers like Max Martin. The Song Machine detailed the painstaking work that the likes of Martin and contemporaries Shellback and the controversial Dr Luke put into the biggest hits. It was like gaining access to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory - and yet it was impossible to come away from the book and not be a tad disillusioned about how something as magical as music has been put into such a creative strait-jacket.

It's refreshing, but increasingly rare, to happen upon an album devoid of today's usual rabble of writer-producers but Charlotte Gainsbourg's Rest - my choice this week for Album of the Week - demonstrates how great pop can be when it comes from leftfield. And Fever Ray's Plunge, from earlier this month, also offers a riposte to the increasingly safeness and sameness of contemporary pop.

But it would be churlish not to acknowledge that, on occasion, the latest crop of go-to writers deliver pop songs to stand with the best. Sia Furler - one of the few women to muscle into what, surprisingly, remains a male stronghold - has co-written superior songs for the likes of Paloma Faith and the veteran Debbie Harry.

And, she walks the walk, too: her own albums have been on the eclectic side and her latest, Everyday is Christmas, is a seasonal collection that harks back to a time when pop stars cared about delivering festive hits. But there's a familiar name in the credits. Greg Kurstin was both co-writer and producer.

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