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Lorde Says Max Martin’s “Incorrect Songwriting” Comment Was About “Royals” and Not “Green Light”

There’s a story about master pop songwriter Max Martin’s critique of Lorde’s song “Green Light,” the opening track on her fantastic new album Melodrama. Although it’s only a couple months old, it has already grown into Lorde lore—blogged as news, mentioned in reviews. But is it true?

According to Jonah Weiner’s profile of Lorde in April’s New York Times Magazine (which, like many others, we posted about at the time), Lorde recalled playing “Green Light” for Martin, who reportedly said that it was, in his opinion, “incorrect songwriting.” This critique was believable, because “Green Light” is strange—it doesn’t sound like the kind of precisely calibrated, surefire-hit pop (think “California Gurls” or “Shake It Off”) that Martin is known for. Here’s the original passage from the Times piece:

When Max Martin heard “Green Light” shortly before its release, [Lorde] told me, “he had a very specific opinion, which had to do with the melodic math — shortening a part.” Martin is probably the greatest pop craftsman alive. Since his late-’90s breakthrough he has written or co-written career-defining singles for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and the Weeknd. Lorde sought an audience with him a few years ago at his Los Angeles studio, and they stayed in touch. Martin described “Green Light” as a case of “incorrect songwriting,” Lorde said, clarifying that this “wasn’t an insult, just a statement of fact,” and one, furthermore, that she agreed with: “It’s a strange piece of music.” (The press-averse Martin declined to comment.) On top of the left-field key change, “the drums don’t show up on the chorus until halfway through, which creates this other, bizarre part.”

But in a podcast interview posted today, Lorde attempted to clarify Weiner’s retelling of the story. Talking to New Zealand’s The Spinoff, she said Martin’s “incorrect songwriting” critique was in fact about “Royals,” the surprise 2013 hit that made her a star. Here’s what Lorde had to say when The Spinoff’s host asked her about the Times anecdote:

I actually, I said that about “Royals”—that’s what he said about “Royals.” I think Jonah might’ve crossed the wires. But ’cause with “Royals,” he was basically like, “The pre-chorus should be the chorus. That’s the catchiest part of the song,” and I was like, “It’s just a catchy pre-chorus, it can just sit where it sits,” and he was like, “It’s incorrect.”

What to believe?! On the one hand, Lorde is confidently debunking the story. On the other, Lorde’s quote about how “the drums don’t show up on the chorus until halfway through” is plainly a description of “Green Light,” not “Royals.” It’s also easy to imagine Max Martin saying either thing—complimenting Lorde on her out-of-nowhere smash hit despite its wonkiness, or asserting to her that her comeback single was technically “incorrect songwriting.”

Over the phone, Weiner says his piece was based on notes taken while talking to Lorde at the Flame diner earlier this year. He says that the “Green Light” critique was “unambiguous.”

“My memory of that exchange was her saying, yeah, Max Martin had a problem with the melodic math of [“Green Light”], he thought it was off, something to do with shortening a part,” says Weiner, reading from his interview notes. “Then I have the phrase, ‘hit song is incorrect songwriting, not pejorative, just a fact.’ Then I have her saying that Martin told her that pop music was a sieve that her incorrect songwriting somehow managed to slip through.” Weiner offers that “incorrect” was how Lorde said Martin described her songs in general, and that “Green Light” was “evidence for this diagnosis, too.” He notes that both the Lorde and Martin camps were offered an opportunity to review his account before publication and didn’t raise an objection.

I wasn’t at the Flame that night, but it seems to me that Lorde might’ve described two pieces of Martin criticism at once: he said both that a song like “Royals” was incorrect, and that she really ought to shorten a part on “Green Light.” Of that theory, Weiner says, “maybe she pivots and I don’t hear her pivoting to talk more specifically about ‘Royals’.”

This, I believe, is the current closest truth about Max Martin and Lorde’s “Green Light.” Everyone does appear to agree that Max Martin would not write a Lorde song the way she does—and why would we want him to? In context with the “sieve” quote, “incorrect songwriting” is less a comment about a single, and more like Martin’s complimentary judgement of Lorde’s work in general: Pop music that sounds like it came from an individual, not a machine.

[h/t Elle Hunt]

This post has been updated.

Tags: Lorde, max martin