The Music Men

Music Men Backstreet Boys

The more I learn about popular music, the convinced I become about 1997 being ground zero for pop culture's decline.

Like all sectors of the entertainment industry, pop music suffered a marked collapse--not just in sales, but in quality--in the late 90s.

What happened ca. 1996-1999 that brought popular music so low? Did every act suddenly endure a catastrophic loss of inspiration?

It turns out they didn't have to. Pretty much all chart-topping pop is now written by a handful of highly placed songwriters. Three of the most prominent have connections to a particular songwriting group. The man at the center of it all is Martin Karl Sandberg, AKA Max Martin.
Martin Karl Sandberg (born February 26, 1971), known professionally as Max Martin, is a Swedish music producer and songwriter. He rose to prominence in the mid-1990s after making a string of major hits for artists such as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and 'N Sync. Some of his earlier hits include "I Want It That Way" (1999), "...Baby One More Time" (1999) and "It's My Life" (2000).
Martin's big breakout moment came when he co-wrote and co-produced a majority of the tracks on the Backstreet Boys' album Millennium. That album still holds the US record for most copies shipped, and it's among the best-selling albums of all time with over 40 million copies sold.

And it came out in 1999.

Martin has gone on to write, co-write, and produce hit songs for Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Christina Aguilera, and Taylor Swift. He's written multiple songs for Katy Perry, including the irredeemably pozzed "I Kissed a Girl".

Predictably, he's written and produced for GoGurrrl of the moment Ariana Grande

A quick glance at Martin's catalog reveals Martin's M.O. He writes catchy ear worm beats that disarm listeners against lyrics that encourage conformity with post sexual revolution death cult anti-morality.

These songs are overwhelmingly aimed at girls and young women.

Martin isn't doing his evil work alone, either. He has three influential disciples.
Martin's influence in the music field is also seen in the effect he has had on co-producers. The music site Stereogum singles out three people as his "disciples", Savan Kotecha, Dr. Luke, and Shellback. Time Magazine reported that "There’s a cluster of high-powered songwriters who are based in Sweden, and the grandmaster is Max Martin"
The weaponization of pop music is real. It's due to a coordinated, top-down effort by a small cartel of taste-makers, and it started in the late 1990s.

How much are you willing to bet we'd find a similar pattern operating in other media at the same time?

A likewise small, dedicated group of artists are striving to retake popular entertainment from the death cult grandmasters. Make no mistake, restoring truth, goodness, and beauty to pop culture will be an uphill slog. Men of goodwill with artistic gifts are morally bound to try.

If you fancy reading about the dimension-spanning adventures of a feminine and loyal heroine, check out my award-winning Soul Cycle:

The Ophian Rising - Brian Niemeier


  1. I had an entire section in my Cultural Ground Zero post dedicated to music.

    The Telecommunications Act of 1996, Autotune, Clear Channel, the gutting and merging of countless record labels, the overnight arrival of premade teen pop sensations, and the debut of things such as Total Request Live, Radio Disney, and many similar things, nearly overnight, prove that this result was all concocted. The late '90s was the full corporate seizure of the music industry. This is why it has remained so static for near a quarter of a century. It's dead.

    Rock musicians didn't help the problem by going up their asses with pretension and misery, either.

    1. Fantastic article.

      I remember a musician friend saying of a similar call-in show that the music featured on each episode was planned in advance, and the "request" aspect was fake. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that TRL pulled the same shenanigans.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Yes! Fantastic article indeed. Bookmarked and expect me to pilfer much of it. :)

      One comment on this part:

      "I am not some Gen-Xer who grew up in the 1980s and merely miss better times so I need to tear apart the 1990s. I am a member of Generation Y. I was 12/13 in 1997, in my prime nostalgic years."

      I am a full-blown Gen-Xer, but somewhat unusual in that I made the foolish decision to go to grad school when pushing 30. Most colleges in '94 and on had T1 internet connections so the net was our Wild West. So cutting-edge net, tagging along with all the younger students to the Star Wars rerun, and Blizzard's golden age, and I didn't stand a chance. I consumed the '90s voraciously and without question.

  2. Similarly, I don't remember the guy's name, but all of the Disney starlets to harlots pipeline was run by a single publicity manager. The entire Death Cult zeitgeist was manufactured.

  3. Tom Simon once wrote a lightly fictionalized account of the sequence in book publishing - not the Death Cult part, but how it became possible.


    The general pattern, I take it, is that in the mid-1990s all the people in the arts who had direct knowledge of what actual readers, listeners, watchers, etc. wanted in art were removed from the industry, and decisions on what art would be distributed were made by centralized, small, isolated cliques at the tops of a very few firms, based on long-past experience and their own aesthetic judgement. In all times and places such things lead to a collapse of art into mannerism and convention; in ours, where the intelligentsia is brought up to embrace nihilism ... well, we see the result all around us.

    1. I did a double take when I came across "the Big Six publishers" in that Simon piece. However bleak the world looks, we can always take solace in the fact that oldpub's long-prophesied demise is proceeding apace.

  4. I'd be interested in your thoughts on Rick Beato's "Y2K Curse" video: https://youtu.be/1Bm-IDP8tDk

    "If you fancy reading about the dimension-spanning adventures of a feminine and loyal heroine, check out my award-winning Soul Cycle"

    I'm at chapter 6 of book 3. I got a helpful list of principal characters this time.

    1. Rick is in my top 3 or 4 go-to sources when I want to know something about the music industry. His insight is ignored only at one's peril.

      That said, there may be some apophenia at work in his Y2K Curse theory--nothing as coincidental as a mummy's curse, but perhaps with a bit more smoke than fire.

      Most of what he observed can be chalked up to a combination of:
      >Third albums that failed to connect (A member of Jesus Jones told me outright that this is what happened to them.)
      >The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which Rick does pin some blame on & our friend JD has written about at length.
      >False positives - Some bands he cites as victims of the curse, most notably Live, stayed big into the aughts.
      >Wild Cards - Other acts that fell prey to the curse owed their decline to issues within the band, e.g. artistic differences, personality conflicts, drug problems, etc. Blur and Oasis were two high-profile casualties of internal drama.

    2. One major industry shift that Rick touches on but gets bafflingly wrong is the grunge craze. The public did not, in fact, get tired of hair metal bands. What did happen was that their contracts came up for renewal en masse in the early 90s, and rather than keep paying established acts the compensation their popularity demanded, the record labels cut them and signed garage bands who'd play for peanuts.

      The wholesale replacement of glam metal with grunge was when the top-down realignment of the music industry really started. The twofold problem was that grunge never matched the popularity of the genre it replaced, and record execs didn't think much beyond replacing their expensive labor with cheap labor. (Sound familiar?)

      The industry was left holding the bag by the mid-90s when the grunge fad ran its course. A lot of the bands Rick names were themselves stopgap replacements for disappearing grunge acts--spaghetti that didn't stick to the wall.

    3. Grunge was a 100% corporate scheme that didn't take. Nirvana was failing before Cobain killed himself, and the only real big bands were the Smashing Pumpkins (a glam band with a grunge exterior), Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, (hard rock bands with a grunge exterior), and Pearl Jam (a classic rock band with a grunge exterior), and no one remembers any of the others.

      This is why they flailed after the early '90s to gain any real foothold and why you saw so many disparate styles climbing the charts to fill the hole from blues to punk to swing to ska to Latin music. The musical mid-card was all they had to hold the ground.

      Then there was the ill-fated nu metal trend which might have been the shortest fad in music history, being that it was never actually popular (no high selling acts or albums) that so many people viscerally hated at the time. But it sure cleared the way for teen pop and gangsta rap to outdo it in both hooks and in grit, killing the movement quick.

      By 1997 they were drawing up six album contracts for Britney Spears, someone who had never put out music before. They knew what was coming, and they put all their eggs in that basket.

      Glam bands have never really ever been unpopular. They've just never been liked by record companies, for the same reason OldPub hates pulp. It doesn't sell agenda very well.

    4. "The public did not, in fact, get tired of hair metal bands. What did happen was that their contracts came up for renewal en masse in the early 90s, and rather than keep paying established acts the compensation their popularity demanded, the record labels cut them and signed garage bands who'd play for peanuts."

      Interesting theory. Let's see if it fits the facts.

      The most popular hair metal acts had already begun to change parts of their look and approach by the late 80's, in response to APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION and ...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, both of which were miles away from the sounds of bands like Motley Crue and Poison, and sold millions of copies thanks in large part to both GnR and Metallica's relentless touring. The writing was on the wall in 1988.

      In response, Crue stopped singing about strippers and Satan and started singing about drugs. Poison tried to get serious with "Something to Believe In." In sound, too, hair metal was on its way out before Nirvana showed up-- Cindarella's HEARTBREAK STATION was a blues-rock record; Skid Row's SLAVE TO THE GRIND didn't sound pop at all, didn't have a single, and went #1 anyway. Audiences were looking for different, harder sounds after APPETITE and JUSTICE-- the Clash of the Titans tour conquered the world, Soundgarden opened for Metallica, Anthrax crossed over with Public Enemy, Faith no More had hits, Jane's Addiction had a top 20 record...and all before Nevermind.

      Moreover, I don't think this idea that the majors dropped hair metal acts to save money is true. Motley Crue was on Elektra until 1997. They stopped having hits because Vince Neil left after Feelgood; I think Nikki Sixx died twice or something. Poison jumped from Enigma (sort of indie) to Capitol (major) AFTER grunge broke but then imploded because NATIVE TONGUE was awful. Dokken broke up in 1989. Ratt imploded in the early 90's for a variety of reasons. Twisted Sister broke up in 1987. Stryper broke up in 1992 after trying and failing to go hard in 1990. Def Leppard never really fit into the genre, and Bon Jovi survived. Warrant only got dropped by its label after Jani Lane left...and you know? I think I'm okay with grunge killing off Warrant. What a terrible band.

      Also, the Black Album was a monster hit a few months before Nevermind. For better or for worse, that record was inescapable in the second half of 1991-- the last nail in the coffin of hair metal. Maybe. Of course all those bands came back in the late 90's anyway.

      Long story short: the majors didn't drop hair metal and replace it with grunge (except maybe in the case of Warrant), hair metal was on its way out in 1990 and 91 because the genre had run its course and audiences had moved on.

    5. I'll grant that the public's musical tastes evolved. You presented a lot of interesting information I wasn't aware of.

      That said, there's an awful lot of cherry picking and semantic sleight of hand in your comment.

      The facts affirm that grunge was a fad imposed from the top down marketed as a grassroots movement. Nirvana was the only grunge act to sell at least 75 million records. Several glam metal bands equaled or surpassed them.

      Look into the Mini Majors. Those were imprints of the big record companies disguised as indie labels to lure in naive young talent. Mini Major A&R guys would trawl the Seattle scene for bands to fit their prefab grunge mold. Those bands were not cut deals anywhere near as lucrative as the outgoing hair metal acts' contracts.

      We know the big labels invented grunge and drove the Seattle signing frenzy. We know grunge never matched glam metal's popularity. There we have the industry replacing one genre with a less successful substitute.

    6. "Several glam metal bands equaled or surpassed [Nirvana]."

      Here are the numbers of records sold worldwide by the relevant bands:

      Motley Crue: 100 million
      Nirvana: 75 million
      Pearl Jam: 60 million
      Stone Temple Pilots: 40 million
      Soundgarden: 37.5 million
      Ratt: 31 Million
      Alice in Chains: 30 Million
      Poison 15: Million
      Twisted Sister: 12 million
      Dokken: 10 Million
      Stryper: 10 Million
      Warrant: 10 million

      I see -one- band surpassing Nirvana, and the other grunge acts doing pretty well in comparison to the hair metal bands. So who are these other hair metal bands who surpassed Nirvana's album sales?

      "The facts affirm that grunge was a fad imposed from the top down marketed as a grassroots movement."

      Most of the bands in the first wave of grunge had been around for years, toiling in obscurity in much the same way the hair metal bands were playing backyard parties on the Sunset Strip in the early 80's. The Melvins, Mudhoney, and Tad are STILL toiling in obscurity. What makes one more authentic than the other? Record labels looked at Motley Crue and created Winger and the Bulletboys. The Musicians Institute opened to teach identikit musicians how to play cookie-cutter music. BY the late 80's, even MTV, which broken many of these bands, was making fun of how every hair metal record had to have a power ballad. Even L.A. Guns succumbed!

      It's the same in every scene. Innovation and excitement attracts record label vampires who start cranking out third-rate Xeroxes until the well is dry.

      Yes, lumping in Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots in the same category was record label hubris, but people (like myself) bought Nevermind because they heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio or on MTV.

      The record labels went nuts for grunge because everyone could tell hair metal was on its way out and the (allegedly) more authentic hard rock/metal/alternative sounds were becoming more popular. "Grunge" seemed to fit, however awkwardly, into that sound.

      And for a few years, in the early 90's, radio was more interesting than it had been for a long time. And based on those sales numbers above it seems like the record companies made the right bet.

    7. More cherry picking, but since you asked:
      >KISS: 75 million
      >Bon Jovi: 100 million
      >GnR: 100 million
      >Def Leppard: 100 million

      "Yes, lumping in Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots in the same category was record label hubris, but people (like myself) bought Nevermind because they heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio or on MTV."

      We're in full agreement there.

    8. Def Leppard isn't a hair metal band. They're a NWOBHM band that got big in America. Similarly, Axl Rose had big hair in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video but they were clear, as Leppard was, that they didn't want to be lumped in with the Crue/Poison axis. And they didn't sound anything like those bands either.

      KISS predates the hair metal scene by almost a decade, and had even stopped wearing their makeup by 1983!

      Bon Jovi: I'll grant you they were a hair metal band in the 80's and Slippery When Wet and New Jersey certainly sold millions of copies, but after the 80's they weren't really playing hair metal anymore. It was just radio-friendly rock.

    9. Also, as I pointed out before, Bon Jovi has survived and even thrived since the 80's. I guess they escaped the purge.

    10. No one said they were all hair metal. Some are glam metal, of which hair metal is a subgenre.

      If we're going to split hairs that fine, then Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and even Nirvana, aren't grunge.

    11. I could see KISS as glam metal until they stopped wearing their makeup. GnR and Def Leppard only rarely teased their hair and never wore makeup. (I mean, look at Def Leppard's jeans on the Hysteria tour and tell me they were glam.)

      And if even we say, okay, they're all "pop metal" or something bogus like that, they don't support your argument anyway, because all four of those bands were on major labels throughout the 90's. The labels didn't abandon those four bands. GnR imploded, Def Leppard forgot how to write songs, and Bon Jovi went mainstream. Kiss? Don't know, don't care.

  5. Thinking of the successful slaughter of Hair Metal by record execs and critics, it makes me think of Grand Funk Railroad. While they did have a record company contract, the critics certainly hated them, especially as they continued to fill stadiums and (worst of all) kept announcing that they didn't care what critics thought.

    Has there been something like that since the 90's, i.e. a band being hated by the music establishment but still being monumentally successful?

    1. Not on that level. The establishment got around that problem by just manufacturing acts to push their message from scratch.

  6. Have you ever reviewed the strange case of Kevin Hughes? An employee at a Nashville music magazine in the late 80s who thought he'd found evidence of fakery in the charts. Might as well have had dirt on a Clinton, for all the good it did him.


    This is the episode of Unsolved Mysteries that featured him, minute mark 25:33, if you're curious

    1. Yes, I saw that episode. It's chilling what happened.

      Now consider that the business side of rock and pop is even more degenerate than country, and the evil that must go on behind the scenes beggars the mind.

  7. Well "I Want it That Way" is the greatest Christian song ever written.