With their albums released just a week apart, pop fans will spend the summer arguing who did it best: Ariana Grande or Fifth Harmony. But a closer look at the production credits reveals another battle going on behind the scenes – between Scandinavia’s two world-dominating hit factories.
Max Martin needs no introduction. The 45-year-old Swede has maintained an iron grip on the pop charts since the turn of the century, churning out everything from ‘…Baby One More Time’ and ‘I Want It That Way’ to ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Can’t Feel My Face’. His songs are saturated with hooks, combining the catchiest parts of Swedish dance-pop, arena rock, ‘90s R&B and millennial electronic music to define the sound of modern pop.
But Martin is not the only Scandinavian hitmaker ruling the charts from behind the scenes: for the last decade, Norwegian production duo Stargate has had dozens of top 10 singles, working from a similar formula as Martin but forging songs more apt for R&B-influenced singers like Rihanna, Ne-yo and Beyoncé. In the last few years you’ve heard Martin’s productions – think the hits of Taylor Swift’s 1989 – on the radio, in commercials and in stadiums; you’re more likely to hear Stargate’s work – including Tinashe’s ‘All Hands On Deck’ and Ty Dolla $ign’s ‘Drop That Kitty’ – in the club. And their different production styles are all over Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman and Fifth Harmony’s 7/27, albums that tell us plenty about both acts – and the state of pop music in 2016.
Grande is the latest in a long line of child star pop princesses, going from Nickelodeon’s Sam & Cat to sex kitten chanteuse in a few short years. But she’s no Auto-Tune-reliant Britney: Grande has long been compared to Mariah Carey because of her four-octave range. Her 2014 album My Everything lived up to its expansive title, roping in a score of producers as Grande skipped from EDM fist-pumpers to hip-hop-flavored ballads to irrepressible pop smashes. The album’s biggest hits – ‘Problem’ and ‘Bang Bang’ – were co-helmed by Martin and protege Ilya Salmanzadeh, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Grande has re-teamed with the Swedish pair for the majority of Dangerous Woman, which has been billed as the 22-year-old’s most “mature” album yet.
But despite its title, there is nothing dangerous about Dangerous Woman. When Grande sings that she made a decision to test her limits, she must be talking about her vocal range – which is as impressive and precise as ever – because the songwriting is as safely middle-of-the-road as we’ve come to expect from Martin and company. There’s the sock-hop slow dance ‘Moonlight’, throwback bluesy (‘Dangerous Woman’), funky (‘Greedy’) and soulful (‘Leave Me Lonely’, ‘I Don’t Care’), and rap-washed tracks that waste their guests (Lil Wayne on ‘Let Me Love You’, Future on ‘Everyday’). There’s a token nod to pop’s current fascination with reggae and dancehall on ‘Side to Side’, a collaboration with Nicki Minaj that pales in comparison to their last team-up, boss bitch anthem ‘Get On Your Knees’.
Grande is more memorable when she sticks with contemporary sounds like on ‘Be Alright’ and ‘Knew Better / Forever Boy’, songs produced not by Martin and company but Tommy “TB Hits” Brown, a protege of Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (‘The Boy Is Mine’, ‘Say My Name’) Perhaps coincidentally, these are the songs where she’s actually “dangerous,” or at least the strong one in a relationship. ‘Be Alright’ finds her reassuring a doubtful lover, while on ‘Knew Better / Forever Boy’ she claims there “ain’t nobody like me” and maintains that nobody can keep her attention for more than a few months. Contrast this with the message of the Martin tracks: for all the control-taking and decision-making of ‘Dangerous Woman’, the hook (“Somethin’ ’bout you makes me feel like a dangerous woman”) puts the responsibility for her attitude at the feet of her man. The same is true on ‘Bad Decisions’, a song that briefly flirts with edginess (“Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?”) but cedes agency in the hook: “Boy, you make me make bad decisions.”
There are fewer bad decisions, as it were, on Fifth Harmony’s 7/27. Fifth Harmony is a five-member group that was born on The X Factor USA – essentially the American female counterpart to One Direction. Their debut album Reflection was one of the best (if most slept-on) pop releases of the year: wall-to-wall, R&B-flavored dance-pop with gratuitous-but-clever nods to divas past. And rather than streamlining their sound, as Grande did on Dangerous Woman, 7/27 (named after the day the group was formed in 2012) returns to the well that proved so fruitful on Reflection.
Like Grande, Fifth Harmony has re-teamed with the producers responsible for their biggest hit (the horn-heavy, Kid Ink-assisted jam ‘Worth It’), with Stargate responsible for half of the album. The duo do what they do best, bringing ‘Irreplacable’ acoustic guitar to ‘Write On Me’ and piggybacking on contemporary trends. ‘All In My Head (Flex)’ checks boxes for both reggae and Fetty Wap, and if you’re going to do dancehall, you can do worse than covering Vybz Kartel (‘Gonna Get Better’). They also team with younger, zeitgeist-grabbing producers, bringing Fifth Harmony’s soul to Kygo’s usually-bland tropical house and Bloodpop’s dembow-frankensteinage; the ‘Sorry’ co-producer contributes to ‘Scared of Happy’ here.
Fifth Harmony outpaces Grande lyrically as well. Like last time around, there are knowing nods to Girl Power queens (“Destiny said it, you got to get up and get it / Get mad independent and don’t you ever forget it”) and semi-corny sex metaphors aplenty (all of ‘Work From Home’, ‘Write On Me’). There is trite pop fair like ‘Squeeze’, but the group isn’t afraid to dig a little deeper. On ‘Scared of Happy’, the group questions self, love and self-love (“Usually fearless, why am I scared of happy?”), and on the Prince homage ‘Not That Kinda Girl’, they aren’t impressed by fuckboy antics. And as far as Mary J. Blige references go, “How Mary J call it, that real love” on ‘I Lied’ bests Grande’s cringeworthy “hood love” lyric on ‘Bad Decisions’ (Grande might have dated Big Sean, but she’s from tony Boca Raton, Florida).
If Ariana Grande and her team were looking for a 1989-sized showcase of a singer who could very well be the next Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, handing the keys to Max Martin was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, you can’t be particularly dangerous – musically or lyrically – when you do that, and on Dangerous Woman, Grande’s mindblowing voice is pressed into service for mostly ho-hum and overly nostalgic songwriting. And while Fifth Harmony might be nostalgic for the days of late ‘90s and early ‘00s pop music, they’ve done a better job of making contemporary sounds – not just retro ones – their own, a trick mastered by Destiny’s Child (and Mariah and Christina) before them. They’ve also done a better job of telling stories about dangerous women, and not just the men that love them.
Stargate’s vision of pop might be more dynamic and dangerous than Martin’s, but the Swedish hitmaker certainly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Martin currently has five songs in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling!’, P!nk’s ‘Just Like Fire’ and Adele’s ‘Send My Love (To Your New Lover)’ joined by the first two Dangerous Woman singles. Stargate isn’t on the chart at all, but Fifth Harmony is, with their single ‘Work From Home’. It’s a song co-written and co-produced by Ammo, a protege of Dr. Luke, the super-producer who himself is a protege of – who else? – Max Martin.
Chris Kelly is on Twitter