Max Martin’s bare foot is on the sustain pedal of his new upright piano, the only piece of furniture in his small, dark living room. The three notes of a C minor chord are suspended in the air. A Dictaphone sits on top of the piano recording, next to a glass of whiskey that is leaving a ring of condensation. The melody, as always, came first, and it’s almost finished. The first line hovers on C, then dips to B, then back to C and up to D for the dominant chord, for anticipation.
He reaches for the whiskey but doesn’t sip it, using the cool glass instead to soothe his sore eye.
The woman is gone, and without her the flat is empty. It’s cold and may be snowing, but the heat isn’t on. His mentor, the man who gave him the job that earned him the piano, is dead from stomach cancer. Now whiskey burns a whole in Max’s gut. No one is thinking of him.
He pulses the chord into the air again. The piano is precisely tuned. He has been refining the melody for several hours by singing in fake mumbling English, sounds that only approximate words. Now he must find real words with similar intonations to form lyrics that will enhance the melody. Everything should be in its simplest form, pure, most like itself. Everything should be balanced.
The whiskey is finished. He can almost see his breath. He feels his heart beating on tempo, and he curls his toes around the pedal. Five words, eight syllables.
My loneliness is killing me.
Max Martin is in the studio with a failed American gospel artist named Katy Hudson. The song is in A minor, and it’s almost finished. He has decided to simplify the second two lines of the verse, since they lead directly into the chorus. The pre-chorus he already cut. From a wandering melody, he goes to just a few notes. First two trios, one all E, and the next E twice and then up to F.
It’s not what I’m used to.
Then up a fifth to C, down to B, and back to E.
Just wanna try you on.
Katy insists that they have it, but it’s not quite there. They’ve done dozens of takes for this verse, but Katy hasn’t hit the “wanna” perfectly yet. She keeps getting to C too directly, too quickly. “That’s right for the second verse,” he says, “But the first time they hear it should be darker, a bit airier, more seductive. Take a fraction of a second longer to reach the high note.”
She sings it again, and nails it, but this time comes in too soft on the following lines. They start the same, but instead of jumping down to E, C goes to B down to A, the tonic, the first note of the scale of the home key, so the chorus hits like a bomb. He shakes his hand at her to indicate the need for more intensity. He says, “Again.”
This is all just part of the process, though. Standard. He thinks the record is pretty good. He has no idea that Americans will find the content of the song controversial, or that this controversy will make it a hit.
Max is seven years old. His parents only have a few records, mostly ‘best of’ collections, but he’s allowed to listen to them anytime he wants. Best of Creedence, Best of the Beatles, Best of Vivaldi, Best of Queen. He runs his fingers around Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, and then he carefully places the needle on the vinyl. He’s on his stomach on the shag carpet, strands of which he grabs with his toes. This record, he decides, is his favorite. He hums a harmony of his own.
New York City, 2002:
The venue is crowded and smells like weed, even though no one is smoking inside. The opener has just finished; Max didn’t recognize them or any of their songs. This place, he was told, is at the forefront of a new sound, but the melodies are trite, and the choruses don’t explode the way they should. The songs have no variety, no internal balance of notes and complexity, and each sounds more like the last. He hopes the main act will be better.
Between sets he orders a whisky. “Hot in Herre” starts playing on the radio, and as the crowd reacts in excitement and begins dancing, he’s overcome with disgust. He might never write a hit song again.
“This is a travesty,” he says to a woman at the bar.
She playfully rolls her shoulders to the beat. “You don’t like hip hop?” she asks, and orders her own drink.
Max doesn’t offer to pay for it. “The whole industry is on the wrong path,” he says.
She slips away from the bar into the crowd.
Max is in bed next to the woman he has been seeing, fucking, leaving, loving for the past four years. She’s a light sleeper, and he’s terrified to wake her, even though it’s been a few months without an incident. A melody came to him, and as he sang it and manipulated it in his head he thought it might be something. Now he debates whether or not to get the Dictaphone from the other room to record it.
He tells himself that he’ll remember it in the morning, but that’s a lie and he knows it. It’s cold, even under the covers. There’s not a pad beside the bed to jot down notes and impressions of words. The song fragment is good enough, he decides, to warrant the risk of waking up the woman.
He rolls off the bed as quietly as possible, lowering himself onto all fours. He crawls across the carpet to the living room, where he takes the Dictaphone to the furthest corner of the apartment. He records the melody a few times, each a slightly different variation, and on the fourth and final attempt, he solidifies a lyric.
And no matter what I do I feel the pain, with or without you.
Los Angeles, 2014:
A dozen Grammy winners are already at the party. Paparazzi lurk outside in droves, but none photograph Max. Many of those in attendance who haven’t worked with him don’t recognize him. A few wouldn’t even recognize his name.
The party is glamorous and extravagant. There is a tended bar in front of a full wall of built-in shelves lined with liquor bottles. Staff pass scallops and strange bites on little spoons and will leave headshots after they finish working in case anyone in attendance is in the film industry. One of Max’s songs comes on, but he doesn’t smile. Even among each other, the artists need the illusion that the work is theirs alone.
He’s almost drunk, and while the young stars imbibe and Instagram and snort cocaine in marble bathrooms, Max admires a glass sculpture of a dancer that refracts the light just so. He wonders if the hostess even remembers buying it, or if maybe it’s there just to impress for the duration of the party. He tells himself he’s happier without vanity or fame, but in a room where he’s at his most likely to be recognized, it pains him that no one seems to see him. He figured an up and comer or maybe at least a former Disney kid would have approached and asked to work with him. Still looking through the glass sculpture, he wonders, as he always does at events like these, why he decided to attend in the first place.
Max tenses his muscles and shakes in faux agony, then looks up to the lights in the approximation of contempt. He’s affixed to a nine-foot plastic cross and dressed like a glam Jesus Christ. “My talk is pretty nasty,” he sings, “for a sacred man.”
He is filming a music video for “Pretend I’m God” by It’s Alive, a metal band he formed in 1985, the excitement of which drove him to drop out of high school. The bandmates are skeptical of the video’s concept, but on the cross Max is ecstatic. He thrashes his hair like his KISS idols, and while the recording of his song blasts for inspiration for the actors and director, Max is certain that this video will take the band to stardom.
It’s snowing, and the sustain pedal is cool against Max’s foot. The Dictaphone waits patiently by the empty glass. The next line starts over the III chord, the relative major, seldom used in pop music but one of Max’s tools for deception, a lift for a chorus that starts minor. It’s mostly E♭, then F, G, A♭, G, the half step up to A♭ and back providing the simple flourish that he knows he’d deliver perfectly in concert if he could ever perform it. It’s a subtle gesture, but necessary, and maybe even brilliant, because it comes back to end the chorus. He knows no one else could have written it.
I must confess, I still believe.
“You’re not an artist.”
A Swedish DJ who goes by Denniz PoP is telling Max that he will not make it as a performer, that it’s time to reevaluate and push on his other talents. Max has been working in PoP’s studio, learning recording and production techniques, but is hesitant to give up on It’s Alive and being a front man.
PoP has the uncanny ability to know what Max is thinking. “Fuck the band,” he says. He doesn’t need to say he thinks they suck.
Max feels the urge to dissociate, to focus on one of the dials or sliders surrounding him in the studio, but he lays both hands on the soundboard and keeps eye contact.
“Work for me full time,” PoP says. “Learn to make hits.”
Max imagines himself backstage at a sold-out concert. He mouths the words to a song he wrote, while onstage a tiny beautiful woman entertains the adoring stadium. He can’t tell if it’s a premonition, or if the feeling he imagined is contentment.
In the studio, PoP watches him think. Then Max asks what the 48V phantom power button does.
New York City, 2002:
Max is fuming outside the venue he vows never to reenter. The second act was worse than the first. Their musicianship was so offensive that he was unable to focus on the content or composition or arrangement, let alone forget himself for a moment and just enjoy the tunes, so he left somewhere during their fourth song. They finish their set while Max looks for a taxi.
His own songwriting has gone cold, but he believes that stems from a disconnect with his audience rather than any failing of his creative powers. PoP, he knew, would agree. If he was still alive, it might never have gotten to this point. But PoP is gone, and Max can’t write; he can only listen in frustration, and tell the cab driver to lower the radio.
Los Angeles, 1995:
Max has not consumed drugs, but he’s high. Jet lag may contribute, he thinks, sitting in the control room, but mostly it’s the effect of the man in the booth he hears through the headset.
A few weeks before, he received a call to help tweak a song in the United States. He at first said no, but PoP pushed him to change his mind. Now Max is experiencing a Michael Jackson vocal take in person for the first time.
Being so close to such a talent is overwhelming. Max loses his mind, and he starts laughing, elated, uncontrollable laughter he can’t contain, like a maddened widower at a funeral who can’t help himself. He has never felt this way when performing.
Max has been comping for eight consecutive hours without interruption. He chops up the best syllables from each vocal take and recombines them into an idealized amalgam. For most, even other producers he works with, the task is tedious and unbearable. Max approaches it with monomania. There is no deadline, and he isn’t running out of studio time. Everything must be perfect, most like itself. An assistant offers to bring him food or to take over, but Max refuses both. He entrusts the comping work to no one else. As he scans the eleventh take for a better third syllable of the pre-chorus, he grins. The secret is he loves it.
Stockholm, 1996/New York City, 2002/Los Angeles, 2016:
In a bathroom at home or at the studio or at a bar, Max (maybe drunkenly) washes his face, then stares at himself in the mirror until his face morphs, and he can’t tell on which side of the mirror he stands. He asks himself the same question he has for years: Am I original? He hears the answer aloud, in resounding chorus, with four-part harmony: Yeah.
He’s back to C minor, and he leans into the chord, voiced in the lower and upper registers of the piano to sound full, and in Max’s mind it shakes the apartment.
The woman, when she was still there, would never tolerate playing and writing at this hour. He jerks his hands from the keys, afraid she’ll slam the cover on his fingers, but he remembers she isn’t there. His foot is still on the sustain pedal, so the C minor chord lingers.
Melodically, this line is the same as the first. The only difference is one more syllable on C. It has to be a mirror, to sound familiar, but also build subtly, something felt but never noticed. Along with the extra syllable, he uses exclusively one-syllable words to build in more content than the first line, to make it seem like the pace is accelerating, like the flame is traveling faster and faster up the fuse.
When I’m not with you I lose my mind.
The woman shoves Max onto the bed harder he was prepared for, and she straddles him for the first of what will be many times. He wants to take it slow, to be gentle, but he can’t protest the pace, since she’s gagged him with her underwear. If he could speak, he’d protest this, too.
She looks down at him. “I can tell that you know I know how I want it,” she says.
He’s frightened, but also the most aroused he has ever been.
Max shivers alone in the space he used to share with the woman. He refuses to turn on the heat or to allow himself remedy. “You are my fire,” he whispers, and he laughs because it’s corny, then cries because it’s true.
Los Angeles, 2015:
Max is called in for ten syllables. True to his form, the songwriters crafted the song from the melody first, collaborated, simplified, and settled on catchy lyrics to enhance the sounds. Savan Kotecha, one of his disciples, has done good work. In the penultimate line of the second verse, however, they need ten syllables to lead into “when we’re deep in love,” the last hole in what they believe will be a hit. These ten syllables come to Max perhaps more quickly than any other in his career.
All the misery was necessary.
Just as the fuse is almost at the end, Max slows it down. His back is curling, and his chest is pressed close to the keys. Over the III chord, the melody rises from E♭ to F to G, which is held as the longest note of the melody so far, the dominant, anticipation drawn out as long as possible, teasing, until on the same syllable it cascades down to C again, not the ending, but the breath before an explosion.
Give me a sign…
Los Angeles, 2014:
Max is working with Taylor Swift, an artist that in 2010 he helped transition from country to bona fide pop. They are collaborating on a song that takes the public character of Taylor to the extreme, leans into it, fictionalizes it, and satirizes it. He’s proud she’s able now to make fun of herself. They are finalizing the bridge, which will complete the song they both know will be a hit. They’ve detailed Taylor’s alleged neuroses, but not really the other side of it.
“As crazy as I may be,” she says, “The guys in the story still want to date me.”
Max smiles at the opportunity to teach her once more, then writes the line that will be featured on the cover of the single.
Boys only want love if it’s torture.
Max makes the finishing touch on a single he wrote for the inaugural winner of a massively popular American singing contest. The cold period is over. Max was listening to a song by an indie rock band when the breakthrough happened. It starts off simple with a quiet guitar riff, a mild intensity, maybe a three on a scale of one to ten. Then the verse comes in, more layers of guitar, and it hits like a five, building nicely. Then the chorus comes in at like a seven. A huge missed opportunity. Infuriating.
But Max realized he could just rewrite the song how it should be, and did so in one afternoon. He doesn’t really play guitar, so the riff he wrote is beautifully simple. The verse leaves the listener space to think. Where the indie song failed, he writes a chorus at level ten. The song rocks, and the artist understands that the chorus should be explosive. She has the range to nail it. Finally, he’s produced another hit.
“You should be able to identify the song in the first second.” Denniz PoP is pacing, lecturing, while Max takes notes. “On the dancefloor, if they don’t recognize it immediately, you’ve lost them.”
Max has been helping PoP in the studio, has mastered the mixing board, but he’s ready to bring his own writing to the table. “How do you know which are good? Which will sell?”
PoP claps his hands together. “When you write them, you’re a parent. Treat them with care, like your children. Make them perfect. When you edit, when you chose what to produce, be a mass murderer. Kill as many as you can.”
Stockholm, Sweden, 2016:
Max is preparing for a banquet where he’ll be honored as this year’s Polar Music Prize Laureate. Previous winners include Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Led Zeppelin. While putting on his tuxedo, he’s listening to demos he made over the years. The production value is lower, but in each case the artists have mimicked his recordings down to the breath. The hits are essentially covers of these tracks.
He plays a demo he recorded in 1998, a song directed right at the listener. Tying his bow tie, he remembers struggling for weeks to articulate the idea correctly, how to express it in lyrics simple enough for pop. The superstar is dependent on the fan. His career couldn’t exist without the audience’s love, their dedication, all of their time spent. It’s what keeps him alive. Fans might idolize performers, but without the fans, performers would be nothing.
On the day he’ll accept this award, more than ever he wants to share this message with those who have made it possible for him to spend his life making music. Tucking his hair behind his ears, he sings along with himself on the demo.
That makes you larger than life.
Max can see his breath. He feels on the verge of collapse, but everything is set to be finished. The room is spinning, and he slams the sustain pedal like he’s pumping his breaks.
It ends with the dominant, wavering between G and A♭ and back, almost classical-sounding in isolation but here an explosion at the end of the chorus, propelling only forward and upward, everything perfect and in balance, everything most like itself.
Hit me baby one more time.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Jacob Ginsberg is a writer and tutor living in Philadelphia, PA. He earned his MFA from Temple University. His work has appeared in Tiny Molecules, Rejection Letters, and Boudin, the online home of The McNeese Review. Find him on Twitter at @JacobGinsberg1.