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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Math, Max Martin, and the Backstreet Boys

The latest episode of our journey through the decade looks at the Swedish hitmaker who distilled music to an equation

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 9, which looks at one of the biggest songs of the ’90s, the history of boy bands, music as math, and how the Swedes redefined pop music.

The Backstreet Boys first hit it big in Europe, as one does. Their official debut album in the United States, 1997’s Backstreet Boys, features songs from their first two official albums abroad, including the hit single “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back”). That song was cowritten, and coproduced, by a Swedish pop-music guru named Denniz Pop—Denniz with a Z—and his young protégé, Max Martin. Martin was born Karl Martin Sandberg, in Stockholm, in 1971. In the mid-’80s, under the name Martin White, he fronted a glam-metal band called It’s Alive. No exclamation point, in “It’s Alive,” which is a shame. Here now, is our hero delivering the chorus to a 1993 song called “Sing This Blues.”

As a frontman, Martin’s signature move appeared to be, like, think the prayer-hands emoji over the mouth, the fingertips resting on the lips, a very brooding, contemplative, sexy gesture. Sexy-adjacent. Best-case scenario here is Jeff Buckley if Jeff had been a little more metal (and if he’d lost an octave or two of vocal range), or Alice in Chains if they were quite a bit less metal. It’s Alive: not a global success. But soon Denniz Pop, cofounder of Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, home of many of the country’s finest songwriters and producers, would take young Max under his wing, and together they’d lend their talents to The Bridge, the second album from Ace of Base, gargantuan Swedish hitmakers and, crudely speaking, the ABBA of the ’90s. Nothing crude about Ace of Base themselves, mind you. This tune is called “Beautiful Life.”

Denniz Pop, who’d already coproduced even bigger Ace of Base songs, including “The Sign,” died of stomach cancer in 1998; he’s clearly a beloved figure in this universe, as a musician and as a human. When Max Martin won the Polar Music Prize in 2016—it’s a Swedish royalty thing—Max praised Denniz, saying, “He made me realize how difficult it is to make things sound simple.” Max added that the two secrets to writing the perfect pop song, in no particular order, were love (meaning his wife) and stealing from the best (meaning primarily Prince, KISS, and ABBA). In 1998, in the wake of Denniz Pop’s death, Max took the reins at Cheiron Studios, and later that year, as the writer and coproducer, he helped redefine what the term global success even means.

So here is where the late-’90s teen-pop supernova begins in earnest, with Britney’s “... Baby One More Time,” also the title of her 1999 debut album that sells 25 million copies worldwide, which is just a flabbergasting number. At this point, the music industry is in its Caligula phase, whatever that means to you. This is the absolute peak. This is the cliff. This is the hot rod driving off the cliff. In 2009 the journalist Steve Knopper published a book quite instructively titled Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Music Industry in the Digital Age, and he wrote, “Teen pop was one last squeeze of the sponge to get the world to spend millions and millions of dollars on compact discs.”

So in 1999 you get Baby One More Time, and later that year you get Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, which sold 1.1 million copies in the first week in the United States alone, a new record that stood until 2000, when NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, featuring the Max Martin cowrite “It’s Gonna Be Me,” sold 2.4 million copies in its first week in the United States alone, a record that stood for 15 years, until Adele broke it. Later in 2000, Britney’s second album, Oops I Did It Again, the title track very much a Max Martin joint, sold 1.3 million stateside in its first week. And then: the collapse. Napster. Et cetera. In 1999, total revenue from U.S. music sales and licensing was $14.6 billion; in 2009, it was $6.3 billion.

I still have trouble feeling bad about this, feeling bad for the music industry. I bought a whole bunch of $18 CDs for one song in my time. And I have to confess to you: Millennium, by the Backstreet Boys—it’s a bad album. I’m sorry. The first three songs are “Larger Than Life,” “I Want It That Way,” and “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely.” That’s fantastic. The last three songs are “Spanish Eyes” (yikes), “No One Else Comes Close,” and “The Perfect Fan,” which Brian Littrell cowrote with and dedicated to his mother. The way Steve Knopper put it in his book was, “The least frustrating way to obtain ‘I Want It That Way’ in 1999 or 2000 was to download it for free. Illegally.”

But that’s all boring math. What made “I Want It That Way” so desirable in the first place? Max Martin would suggest that it’s melodic math. Meaning, when you’re writing a song, the melody comes first. Always. And the lyrics, the words themselves, support that melody. That’s it. If they make sense, these words, then great. Fabulous. If they don’t make sense, it’s fine. Protect the melody. The words don’t matter. The syllables matter. The precise number of syllables. The precision with which the number of syllables in one line mirrors the precise number of syllables in the previous line. Balance the equation.

Turn your brain off, or the language part of your brain off, and just enjoy this for what it is: just a gorgeous, luscious, sexy-adjacent, absolutely first-rate collection of syllables, as sung by your medium-cool older brother.

This is sincere praise. This isn’t condescension. This isn’t a neg. Max Martin would play a crucial role in rebuilding the music business in the early 2000s and beyond, and this is how he would do it: one melody, one syllable, one smash hit at a time. He helped teach us how to hear pop music, as math, as art, as math, as art.

To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.