DJs got you fallin’ in love: how two men have churned out decades of hits

Are you by a computer? Good. Go over there, and turn iTunes on. Play Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” (yes, we all know you bought it). When it’s done, play Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.” Both of them are #1 hits by separate artists, released 9 months apart; however, notice how their main riffs are nearly identical (“California Gurls” goes A-B♭-C-D while “Tik Tok” goes B♭-C-D), run at nearly the same speed (I calculated “California” to be about 5 beats per minute faster) and contain nearly the same vocal range and song format. Such a coincidence, huh? Nope. Welcome to the world of Max Martin and Dr. Luke. Martin and Luke (along with “boy wonder” Benny Blanco) wrote and produced both tracks. They are perhaps the biggest superstars of the songwriting establishment, true powerhouses, and yet still not household names. You might recognize some of these songs of theirs–#1 hits are in bold, Top 10 hits are in italics. Avril Lavigne: “Girlfriend” Backstreet Boys: “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” “I Want It That Way,” “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely” Britney Spears: “…Baby One More Time,” “Oops! I Did It Again,” “Circus,” “3” B.o.B: “Magic” Bon Jovi: “It’s My Life” Celine Dion: “That’s The Way It Is” Daughtry: “Feels Like Tonight” Flo Rida: “Right Round” Katy Perry: “I Kissed A Girl,” “Hot N Cold,” “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream” Kelly Clarkson: “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “My Life Would Suck Without You” Ke$ha: “Tik Tok,” “Blah Blah Blah,” “Your Love Is My Drug,” “Take It Off” Miley Cyrus: “Party In The U.S.A” ‘NSync: “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” “It’s Gonna Be Me” P!nk: “Who Knew,” “U + Ur Hand,” “So What,” “Please Don’t Leave Me” Taio Cruz: “Dynamite” Usher: “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” 3OH!3: “My First Kiss,” “Don’t Trust Me” Right there, in a very partial discography of Martin and Luke, is a list of some of the biggest pop songs of the last 14 or so years. Have you ever complained about how all the music on the radio sounds the same? This might be why. A recent breakout star is Bruno Mars, whose hit “Just The Way You Are” scored him his first #1 song. However, Mars isn’t just a singer–he’s already been a respected songwriter and producer for years. Mars worked with Dr. Luke to write Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” and also wrote K’naan’s international #1 “Wavin’ Flag,” and Cee-Lo Green’s recent chart-topper “F**k You!” A similar story emerges in the credits of Ryan Tedder, whose previously unknown band OneRepublic broke out after Timbaland remixed their poorly-mastered track “Apologize” and took it to #2 on the charts. Tedder is also an accomplished writer and producer with a “distinguished” (read: boring) style. Along with fellow star-by-day, writer-by-night Jesse McCartney (I can’t be the only one who made fun of “Beautiful Soul”), Tedder wrote and produced Leona Lewis’ iconic “Bleeding Love,” which topped nearly all pop charts worldwide. Among his other successes include Beyonce’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which were so strikingly similar that it caused an international scandal. I guess when you only have one sound, everything you do starts to sound the same. If there’s one thing to learn from Max Martin (whose name I still remember reading on the album booklet for Backstreet Boys’ 1999 classic Millenium ), Dr. Luke, Bruno Mars, and Ryan Tedder, as well as household names such as Timbaland, it’s that the music industry doesn’t have as many “hit-writers” as we think. Everyone wants to pen the next “…Baby One More Time” or “Tik Tok”–a song that revolutionizes the pop world. But when it comes down to it, such “breakout hits” that sweep the world were calculated to do just that when the record label hired some balding, middle-aged man to write the song all the girls sing along with.