An oft-lodged complaint at mainstream, Top 40 pop music is that it lacks musical diversity, following a consistent “formula” of sorts. Indeed, a cursory listen to the radio reveals countless songs that follow the same structure, (ABABCB – “Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus”), the same chord progression (I-V-vi-IV or any combination thereof), and the same tempo, usually around 120 BPM. For one reason or another, these ingredients make up many of the most successful songs of the 21st century — from Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.”
The undeniable musical similarities among these hits can be partially attributed to their authorship — a staggering number of them were written or co-written by one man: Max Martin. Since writing some of the Backstreet Boys’ most memorable ‘90s songs, Martin has written or co-written 22 No. 1 hits, a record topped only by John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles. Evidently, Martin developed this formula of sorts and has gone on to build a pop music empire, writing and producing Ariana Grande, Pink, Britney Spears, Usher, and many more.
No matter what music critics may say, the universal appeal of these songs is indisputable. The question, then, is: what’s so bad about being formulaic? Every musical genre, from country to jazz, is defined by a group of elements, from instrumentation to melody, that make a song fit into that genre. Furthermore, once an artist stumbles upon their personal recipe for success, they can hardly be blamed for following it repeatedly; as the Beach Boys’ Mike Love once famously instructed the more experimental Brian Wilson, “Don’t f___ with the formula!” Hank Williams, one of country’s most legendary and heartfelt stars, once published a book titled How to Write Folk & Western Music to Sell. In the 1960s, professional songwriting collectives in New York City’s Brill Building and Motown’s Detroit headquarters, Hitsville U.S.A., cranked out songs every week that would be treasured and loved by generations. Like Henry Ford’s visionary automobile assembly line or Ray Kroc’s fast food empire, writer-producers like Max Martin and his proteges have turned pop music into a commodity, available and enjoyed worldwide.