"Don’t Stop Believin'": A Pop-Culture Classic

It shouldn’t work. The song should collapse under the weight of earnest lyrics and guitar-hero theatrics. But Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, doesn’t collapse, it soars – an accidental masterpiece from a mediocre band. The song only reached #9 on the charts during its initial release, but has since become the #1 selling iTunes track of all time, thanks to its use in two of the biggest television events of the past decade.

Journey rose from the ashes of Santana, one of the most dynamic guitar rock bands of the 60’s and early 70’s. After Santana’s acrimonious split, manager Herbie Herbert swiped keyboardist Gregg Rollie and brilliant lead guitarist Neal Schon to head up his new project. Journey’s self-titled first album, released in 1975, features a distinctly prog-rock style, with complicated arrangements and long guitar solos. In fact, Journey is a pretty fantastic album, with a groovy acid rock vibe and jazzy guitar freak outs.

The album didn’t sell very well, nor did the band’s follow up, the 1976 album Look Into the Future. The band was pressured by their label, Columbia Records, to find a more commercial sound, one closer to poppy guitar-rock bands like Boston who were selling an astonishing amount of records and playing to packed stadiums. The band agreed to change their sound, and brought in lead singer Robert Fleischman for the next tour.Fleischman never gelled with the group, and the band seemed unsure of its new direction.

Journey’s fortune changed when manager Herbert was given a demo tape of a band called Alien Project, featuring Steve Perry on vocals. Herbert was amazed by the power of Perry’s voice, and invited him on tour. The band told Fleischman that Perry was the cousin of one of the roadies. While preparing for a gig in Long Beach, Perry took the mic during sound check while Fleischman was away from the stage. Perry gave a knockout performance, and after he had finished Herbert announced the personnel change. The band would finish out the tour with Perry, and would record the next album, 1978’s Infinity, with Perry on vocals.

As a child Perry had idolized soul singer Sam Cooke. Whether through a lifetime of mimicry, or sheer coincidence, Perry’s voice would develop with the same smooth intensity as Cooke’s. Perry could also belt it when he needed to, with a high upper range comparable to Roger Daltry or Robert Plant. In short, Steve Perry may have the greatest voice in rock history.

But along with his amazing vocal skills, Perry brought to Journey an almost embarrassing earnestness. Under the guidance of Perry and his co-songwriter, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, the new Journey became a cheesy hit machine. The course correction from their prog-rock roots is so extreme that it would be like Radiohead recording “Hey Ya” after finishing Kid A. Songs like “Lights” and “Wheel in the Sky” are exuberant, but too bland to be saved by Perry and Schon’s considerable talents. Journey had all the pieces in place for greatness, but seemed content to settle for middle of the road, and were selling too many records to care.


From its opening moments, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is different from anything else in the Journey catalog. The song begins with an insistent, melancholy piano riff – one of most recognizable intros in rock history. The piano carries the melody along until Perry’s voice breaks in, clear and strong, singing of small town girls and city boys seeking escape. They take “the midnight train” to “anywhere”, seeking a new life. The song never specifies what they’re running from or to, just that they need to get away.

The lyrics are cliche, but sincere – quick sketches of sad people living lonely lives, trying to find some solace in each other and the eternal feel of night. These “streetlight people” search everywhere they can for real emotion, which the song says hides “somewhere in the night”. Throughout, the guitar hints at a happiness that the lyrics and driving beat deny. Any hope present in the music is counteracted by the lyrics, which insist that this joyless search “goes on and on”.

Then, three minutes in, the song takes a turn, which rivals the closing minutes of “Hey Jude” for pure musical joy. The remarkable thing is that this change is announced in Schon’s guitar solo. The lead guitar rises above the melancholy notes of the verse line and squeals with unearthed bliss. Then, as the rapturous guitar continues, out of nowhere, Perry bursts out with the hopeful lyric “dont’ stop belivin, hold onto that feeling”. Decades of familiarity have ripped that turn of its miracle, but it is a purely transcendent moment.

On its own merits the song is a rock classic, but its association with the ending of one television phenomenon and the beginning of another have brought it new popularity.

In 2007 David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, approached Steve Perry for permission to use “Don’t Stop Believein’” in the highly anticipated series finale. Perry initially refused, as he didn’t want the song to become associated with violent imagery. He would not agree to let the song be used until he was guaranteed that the song would not score Tony Soprano’s gruesome death. Chase promised it wouldn’t. Chase lied.

Since it first aired on June 10, 2007, the final scene of the Sopranos has been analyzed more than any piece of video footage since the Zapruder film. In May of 2008 an anonymous blogger calling themselves Master of Sopranos posted an exhaustive breakdown of the final scene. Through a dissection of the shot selection chosen by Chase, who directed the episode, the blogger posited the theory that the infamous cut to black that ended the series represented the death of Tony Soprano.

Briefly stated, the final sequence includes a pattern. We see Tony sitting in a restaurant booth. As the camera focuses on Tony we hear a bell ring, and Tony looks up. Then we see the door to the restaurant open and someone walk in. We see Tony again and hear the bell, and we see the door. Tony, bell, door. Then, finally, Tony, bell, black. If those shots of the door opening are meant to represent Tony’s P.O.V as he looks up, then it follows that when we see the blackness we are seeing Tony’s P.O.V. as well – only, Tony sees nothing because he has died. When you consider the fact that David Chase had originally requested for HBO to allow the black to extend for the entire length of the time usually devoted to credits, this theory seems pretty credible.

 


The use of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the scene is extraordinary and the lyrics, filled with desperate people waiting in the dark, add to the tension of the scene. When Carmela and Tony talk about Carlo testifying, the lyrics say “it goes on and on and on and on” moment, reflecting the constant fear and paranoia of their lives. Then Tony looks up to see A.J. coming into the restaurant, followed by a man listed in the credit only as “Man in Members Only Jacket” (he has no lines, and none of the other restaurant extras are credited), who enters to the line “strangers waiting”. According to the theory, this is the man that kills Tony. Later in the scene he walks by Tony’s table, and the camera follows him, just as Perry hits the long high note on “somewhere in the night” before the guitar solo.


The “don’t stop believin’” chorus begins just as the family receives their order of onion rings, which each of them swallows whole, as if taking communion (an obvious reference to The LastSupper). Chase is playing with the song here, and with audience expectations. Anyone familiar with the song knows that it will build to a powerful conclusion, and will expect a grand final moment to play along with it. But Chase denies that satisfaction as coldly he denies Sopranos fans Tony’s bloody corpse.

Chase keeps his promise to Perry on a technicality – the song does not gain association with any brutal imagery. But, if the final scene is conclusively the death of Tony Soprano, then its abrupt ending signifies the nothingness that follows his death. By using the song, Chase has given the words another meaning. If the show ends with Tony’s final moments, then the lingering “don’t stop” becomes a plea for just one more moment of existence. Tony has spent the entire run of the series a slave to his impulses, in part to avoid the emptiness of his life. But in the end, Tony can’t escape the blackness. It’s a bleak existential statement.

Two years after the Sopranos finale, with the song pushed back into the public consciousness, “Don’t Stop Believin’” would be used on another television show in a very different context. In 2009 Fox picked up a show from Ryan Murphy, the creator of Nip/Tuck, called Glee. In a brilliant marketing campaign from a network known for such intelligent decisions, Fox first aired the pilot at the end of the season before Glee would officially premiere. This gave fans all summer to watch the episode, download the songs, and anxiously await new episodes. By the time Glee came back on the air it already had a loyal fan base.

The Glee pilot is essentially Election the musical, if Tracy Flick had been obsessed with stardom rather than political power. The pilot follows put-upon Spanish teacher Will Schuester as he becomes determined to save the McKinley High School glee club. The school’s arts funding is monopolized by the cheerleading squad and their sadistic coach, Sue Sylvester, so Schuester agrees to fund the club himself to keep them going. He holds open auditions and selects a group of outsiders (or the Central Casting version of outsiders, anyway) for the club and begins to prepare them to face their competition. Schuester is so driven to make the club a success that he plants drugs on one of the most popular kids in school, a football player named Finn, to blackmail him to join the group. There Finn meets Rachel Berry, obsessed with stardom and soon to be obsessed with Finn himself.

When Schuester’s wife reveals to him that she’s pregnant (spoiler alert: she’s lying), he reluctantly decides to quit teaching to find a more profitable line of work. The kids are heartbroken at his decision. Inspired by the childhood memory of one of the few people to ever encourage his musical gift (a loser ex-boyfriend of his mom’s that used to blast Journey albums), Finn arranges a musical number, set to “Don’t Stop Believin’” to entice Mr. Schuester to stay. As Will is about to leave the school forever he hears music coming from the gym and watches, with silent wonder.


The Glee arrangement of the song is actually pretty brilliant, with a densely layered beginning and clean vocals. The arrangement picks up the hope inherent in the chorus and coats the entire song with it. The “small town girl, living in a lonely world” might as well be Rachel Berry, but she sings with such joy and conviction that you believe she can overcome whatever obstacle life puts in her way.

The entire first part of the pilot has been fueled by dark, cynical humor, but the song changes the tone of the show completely. No longer an acerbic commentary on social status in high school and wasted potential, the song turn transforms the show into a celebration of music and hope. “Don’t Stop Believin’” becomes Glee’s mission statement. Interestingly, the song stops in the exact same point that Chase cut to black on The Sopranos, but instead of existential despair, the final “don’t stop!” becomes a rallying cry for the hopes and dreams of the characters.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” is a cheesy song. Of course it is. But is also connects with a part of us that yearns to be that openly hopeful. It’s that hopeful part of us that fuels our desires, whether they be to make our dreams come true or to hold on to just one more moment of life. The song is less a rock ballad than an electric hymn.