Max Martin. The genius behind the boards. The master in the shadows. The sixth Backstreet Boy™.
That's him above. He's with his wife, Jenny Pettersson. They're drinking wine.
You don’t know him. But you do. You do. More than you know. But you don’t know that you do know. You get it. I digress.
The song in your head. You heard it on the radio twice this week already. You hate it. You hate it, but it’s there. It’s playing over and over and over again. You honestly couldn’t get it out of your noodle if you had a skid of dynamite, a box of matches, and a jerry can of gasoline and could obliterate your brain. The explosion would occur, the fire would rage, and when it all calmed down, this little tune would still be faintly playing amongst the rubble at ground zero.
And then, before you know it, you’ve bought floor tickets to the concert and you’re screaming the song at the top of your lungs.
What the hell happened? And what the hell does this have to do with drinking wine?
Cue our buddy Max.
Show Me Love. I Want it That Way. …Baby One More Time. no tears left to cry. CAN’T STOP THE FEELING. Shake It Off. It’s Gonna Be Me. Teenage Dream. That’s the Way It Is. DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love. Blow. It’s My Life. So What.
Should I keep going? I could. There are hundreds, if not thousands of smash hits that Max Martin has engineered. And it’s changed the way I think about myself and other people when it comes to understanding our own preferences.
Do you follow me yet?
Max is Swedish. Max is an artist. Max is a scientist. Max wrote and produced these songs using a formula that he fine-tuned to make songs more likeable. He is to music what the characters in Moneyball are to baseball, only times that influence by a thousand.
You see, we all have artists that we love who at some point, just started producing music that didn’t have that lighting in a bottle.
They flopped. The magic came to an end and they could never recapture it.
Max never runs out of magic, because he captured it and perfected it. He doesn’t need to worry about a flop, because he learned how to guarantee a hit.
And he proved that us as listeners are so much dumber than we thought we were.
“So, let me get this straight,” you’re saying. “This guy wrote and produced ALL of these songs? And more? And they’re all hits?”
And what if I told you that English is not even Max’s first language? I thought songwriters by definition should be masters of language, no? Well. It turns out we were wrong about that, too.
Have you had enough yet? Perfect, because we’re just getting started.
Max’s formula, to put it very simply, is based mostly on repetition. This is the reason that Max can literally work with any kind of artist, with any kind of genre, and with any kind of instrumentation. He can craft hits that sound beautiful to most, and he can craft hits that sounds annoying to most. And they can both be hits.
What researchers found in Max Martin’s music is an exploitation of the already semi-understood fundamentals of pop songwriting. Essentially, he likes to work in repetitions of at least multiples of three. And he likes to create as many repeatable parts of the songs as he can. Why is this? Because it has been proven that once a person hears something at least three times, it begins to become familiar to them. So, by this theory, if Max creates repetition of several elements in a verse at least three times per verse, and the song contains three verses, well, but the end of the song, the listener feels like they already know it.
They call it “The Song Machine.” John Seabrook actually calls it that. He wrote a book about it. It’s fantastic. It’s called “The Song Machine.”
And here’s the part where everyone reading this will start to deny everything I’m saying.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to tell ourselves how interesting we are and how unique our tastes are, a great deal of what we base our preferences on is based on what is familiar to us.
I’ll say that again.
A great deal of what we base our preferences on is based on what is familiar to us.
We like what we know. Even when we hate it or we know it’s bad.
How else can you explain people who stay in toxic relationships when there are no real blockages to ending them?
How else can you explain people who continue smoking, drinking, or doing drugs excessively, even when they no longer enjoy the activity and know that they are hurting themselves?
How else can you explain people who literally turn their nose up at beautiful, rare, exciting wines when they are presented to them in favour of literal weasel piss?
How else can you explain the fact that you’ve been singing that Ariana Grande song all week when you know you can’t stand her?
In many respects, we don’t have preferences. We have familiar comforts.
We don’t like anything. We just know some things.
But we don’t even know it.
The radio is fascinating. It’s one area of society where we allow ourselves to be served, and we can’t really complain about it. Sure, we can change the station and curate the general sound to some degree, but any station we choose will play on, regardless of what we think. And we accept that.
And what happens as a result? We allow our tastes to be chosen for us. They are literally formed by others, to be heard by us, until they become familiar.
Forget Max Martin for a minute. How about that one CD you had in your car that you only liked one song on? You might have had it on repeat for a little while. But one day, you got into the car, and Track 1 started playing. Well, you’d heard the first few notes of Track 1 each time you had got in the car before you could skip to the one song you liked. But one day, you just let Track 1 play. And you knew it a little. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you liked it. And the same thing happened with Track 2. And Track 3. And so on. And before you knew it, you loved the entire album. Except maybe that one song. But trust me, don’t write it off now.
What I am interested in as it relates to wine and our enjoyment of it, is achieving that state of mind where we are receptive to that which we are presented with. In other words, how do we get to that place where we accept things and exist comfortably with things that we’re unfamiliar with?
Do we have to get stuck in an elevator with a bottle of wine we thought we hated? Is that what it takes to open up a little? I mean, if that happened to you, I bet you would never forget that wine, and it would serve to become a comforting and charming wine that you’d be open to revisiting.
There are the situations where we are forced to like something, or to at least come to understand it. Max Martin’s songs, the radio, getting stuck in an elevator with someone, that teammate in your women’s rec league that you hated at first but came to love because you spent so much time together.
But there are also situations where our mind is opened, and not just because we have no other choice. There are situations where we enter more of a state of awe and amazement. Where everything around us seems intoxicating and exciting. We get into a great mood and somehow become open-minded for a brief period. This happens to people at wineries a lot, often on their first trip. They get to a nice property, and they can’t believe how beautiful wine country is. They’re on vacation, or a getaway. And the wine is presented in a vast and fancy tasting room or on a patio or in a charming rural setting. It seems like magic. You’re standing there and taking it all in. Standing where grapes are grown that turn into the wines in your glass. And the whole process seems miraculous to you. And all of a sudden, you find yourself enjoying wine that is completely out of your normal spectrum. And it’s just amazing.
I think if we truly want to enjoy wine as much as we can, if we truly want to be sponges for the knowledge that fascinates us and can help us enjoy more authentic wine more authentically, then we need to find more ways to get into this head space all the time. We need to relish in it.
If this is challenging to you, just think about how many times Max Martin has duped you into singing Britney Spears and Celine Dion. And you didn’t even know he was doing it. But you gladly let it happen. So, why not let it happen with new wine? High-brow or low-brow, there’s something to gain from each bottle. Yeah, for sure, are some bottles more worthy of your time, effort, and money? I would say yes. But if narrow your focus to just what you think you already like, it’s unlikely you’ll ever escape the vicious cycle of judgement and approval.
You’ve got to get stuck in an elevator with wine you don’t know. You’ve got to go to wine country with wine you don’t know.
As for Max Martin and the Song Machine, it goes both ways. The wines you already like are probably the ones you were introduced to the most often. You’re probably (obviously) are most familiar with them. They’ve already Max Martin’d you.
Why don’t you let another wine give you the Max Martin?
Let it. Because when you do, it’ll be a hit.