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Journey's 'Don't Stop Believing' as pop-cultural touchstone*

'The Sopranos' used the 1981 Journey hit as its swan song, but the tune itself lives on in movies, TV and theater as the go-to show closer.

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There's an old pop aphorism that goes: "Don't bore us -- get to the chorus." By that yardstick, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " should be one of the most boring and unsuccessful rock recordings of all time.

Structurally, it's a mess: Surely one would get tossed out of songwriting school for a tune that follows its opening piano riff with a verse, a guitar arpeggio, a second verse, a bridge, a guitar solo, a third verse, a repeat of the bridge, another guitar solo . . . and then, 3 minutes, 20 seconds in, when the song is ready to fade out, one of the most unforgettable choruses in rock.

Is it any wonder "Don't Stop Believin' " stalled at a just-OK No. 9 when it was released in 1981?

Somehow, though, the song has escaped damning evaluations and footnote status to become our arena-rock national anthem, universally beloved not just by karaoke bar owners but competing Midwestern sports franchises, Hollywood movie and TV music supervisors, Great White Way theater doyennes and New Jersey mobsters enjoying their final meals.

Its use in the famous last episode of "The Sopranos" (2007) was so definitive that you might have thought any future soundtrack appearances, at least unironic ones, had been whacked. Yet it is still played for purposes of sincere inspiration too, offering a self-contained climax to Fox's pilot of the new series "Glee" or Broadway's "Rock of Ages."

Journey's keyboard player, Jonathan Cain, doesn't credit "Sopranos" creator David Chase with the revival. He credits Adam Sandler -- he knew something was up when the song provided a laugh in 1998's "The Wedding Singer."

"Adam Sandler didn't actually sing it, but there was this little string quartet playing it, and that was the beginning. Who knew?" Cain said.

Those strings might have been going for nostalgic chuckles, but few other uses of the song have -- least of all sports teams such as the Chicago White Sox, who adopted it as their theme for the 2005 World Series. Multiple Detroit franchises employ it because of the lyrical mention of "south Detroit" (even though most Michigan natives contend there is no such place). The entire crop of "Idol" contestants sang it on a 2009 results show. TV dramas "Cold Case" and "CSI" bring it out as a cultural reference point. Performers not known for their sense of irony, from Martina McBride to Kanye West, have earnestly encored with it on tour.

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Cain says he had just signed on with Journey when he, singer Steve Perry and guitarist Neal Schon co-wrote the song. "I had the title and the last chorus, so I brought it in, and we worked backward. That was one of those great days to be in a band," he says.

"There is an odd form to the song as well, because it's almost like an A-B-A-B-C pattern," he says, perhaps understating the true nuttiness of the song's structure. "So there's that chorus they hadn't heard before at the end. But we knew we wanted to save it. It's like a wave about to happen -- the anticipation of something happening, a change in your life," Cain said

That sense of tension and eventual anthemic release may have given the song more staying power than a song that gives away all its goods in the first minute.

"Don't Stop Believin' " has become the top-selling digital download of a track not originally released in this century, selling 2,803,000 units since online single sales began to be tracked in 2003, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Crossover power

And apparently there's room in people's hearts to hear a full chorale bust out that chorus too. The "Glee" cast's version debuted at No. 2 on the iTunes chart, with 302,000 downloads of its own.

Most recently, the song solved the annual problem of how to keep a Middle American audience tuned in for a few minutes of the Tony Awards, as the bewigged cast of "Rock of Ages," the '80s jukebox musical, fronted for the occasion by "Idol" also-ran Constantine Maroulis, got some audience members to flick their Bics.

"Talk about just creating tension -- it just builds and builds, all the way up until the very end," says "Rock of Ages" writer-producer Chris D'Arienzo. "That song really is just kind of a big freight train. We had several mix CDs of '80s arena-rock songs we wanted to use in the show, and it felt clear to me from the beginning that it had to be our 11 o'clock number."

D'Arienzo places "Don't Stop Believin' " in a rock tradition peculiar to the era of Ronald Reagan and "Rocky" sequels: the power riff-laden pep talk.

"There's this whole genre of inspirational rock that you really didn't see a lot before or after the '80s. It was tied into movies, especially: You had 'Eye of the Tiger,' 'Fame,' 'Holding Out for a Hero' -- the go-get-'em-champ kind of tunes that are hard to deny," he said. "Even the worst ones are kind of fun, and 'Don't Stop Believin' ' just happens to be the very best."

"One thing that song does is it rises to the occasion," says Journey's Cain, who says the verses were inspired by his time observing lonely wannabes hooking up on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s. "It amazes me, on a dark thing like 'The Sopranos,' that all of a sudden, some of those lyrics take on a different meaning. 'Some will win, some will lose / Some are born to sing the blues' -- if that's not Tony, I don't know who it is. And yet you can go to a teen show like 'Glee,' and it's this bubbly thing."

Cain recalls his father bucking him up when he was a young struggling musician in his pre-Journey 1970s band, the Babys. "I was always starving, and I'd call him up and he'd say, 'Don't stop believing or you're done, dude.' "

Journey had bigger smashes such as "Who's Crying Now" and "Open Arms," then broke up in '86, reunited for one album with the increasingly reclusive Perry in '96 and has been recording and touring with other singers since. It was on those late-'90s tours that Cain noticed the song had surpassed the others in their catalog in prompting a rush to the stage.

The meaning behind David Chase's selection of the song for the final moments of "The Sopranos" -- and, presumably, the lead character's life -- remains a Rorschach test for people who watched the show. Was it just because that's what a New Jersey guy in his late 40s would order up with his onion rings in a diner? Or, given the artsier leanings of almost all the other rock used on the series, did Chase pick a commercial hit to make some banality-of-evil statement about Tony's life? Or was it the song's tension and buildup, which worked wonders in tandem with the unbearable tension and buildup of Meadow Soprano's parallel parking?

"I can't hear it now without flashing on 'The Sopranos,' so I wish other shows would stop using it," said Gregg Kilday, movie editor of the Hollywood Reporter. "Every time, I keep waiting for the slam to black."

The feel-good factor

"Glee" producer Brad Falchuk admits that some viewers might hear the familiar opening piano riff and initially assume the song is being played for irony, but he maintains uplift was the only thing on their minds.

"Some songs like that move into cliche and then move through cliche into some iconographic thing where they can be interpreted so many different ways," Falchuk says. "But for 'Glee' we were really going for the most basic form of it -- whittling it down to its pure feel-good essence. It's not one of those songs you feel is too cheesy. You can sing to it in karaoke and not feel silly. When we screened the pilot for people, we knew we were doing something right when a lot of people were sort of choked up at the end of that number."

D'Arienzo, of "Rock of Ages," says there's a reason the tune inevitably gets used as a finale -- be it "The Sopranos," "Glee," his Broadway show, or the upcoming "American Idol" tour.

"It's a song that does a lot of heavy lifting for whoever uses it," he says. "I don't kid myself that it isn't why people are on their feet at the end of our show. When 'Sopranos' happened and 'Glee' happened, there's a part of you that thinks, 'Oh, shoot, we had it first!' But it never occurred to me that we should not use it, because it's irreplaceable as a perfect ending song."

He believes that Americans' attitude toward the song is essentially . . . don't stop.

--Chris Willman

Photos: "The Soprano's," top left, courtesy HBO; "Glee," top center, courtesy Al Seib / Los Angeles Times; "The Wedding Singer," top right, courtesy New Line; "Rock of Ages," center, Associated Press

Updated: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the name of Journey's guitarist Neal Schon as Neil Schon. 

 
Comments () | Archives (35)

When I think of bands like Journey, REO, Saga, Bon Jovi, Whitensnake and all those other Lee Abrams-era AOR horrors, and the people who listened to them, I'm amused to see how the groups that appealed to the biggest, most homophobic knuckle-draggers in my high school got glory on Broadway, of all places.


It's a wretchedly banal song, and completely inappropriate to be playing at Dodgers games with children present. What the hell were they thinking?

Great article. The guy who described the song as a freight train, nailed it. That power largely comes from the nutty structure with the chorus/release delayed until the end.

And it don't hurt, does it, that they chorus is not only anthemic, but affirming, gloriously so.

And yet the "it goes on and on and on and on" lyrics, that end a couple verses, can also be heard as not an affirmation, but a recognition that nothing ever gets resolved, very little comes out clean or wrapped in a neat little package. The whole colossal mess just . . . goes on and on and on and on . . . So maybe the song digs into that side of things too. .

And finally, who after hearing this song, regardless of tone deaf-tin ear-pitch problems, doesn't want to sing the dang thing?!!!

"don't stop believing" is a totally lame rip off of "don't stop thinking about tomorrow" by fleetwood mac. just as "underneath it all" is a total rip off of shakira's "underneath your clothes". phoney baloney show biz. none of this stuff involves coincidence.

I am amazed that this article fails to mention the song's appearance on Family Guy. For us young 20-somethings, I think THAT was the moment where we all became aware of Journey.

I liked it best on FAMILY GUY.

Are you kidding? Journey is one of the most generic rock bands of all time appealing to those with limeited aesthetic sensibilties the likes of which enjoy Madonna and such. Their fans at a Pink Floyd concert would be baffled like apes at an observatory.

You can't be serious! All time? Do you think LAT readers are brain dead? Or just dead?

Barf.

Don't crown something "culturally significant" just b/c it's useful.

The only reason this song "seems" like the most-downloaded song is b/c none of the Beatles' catalogue can be downloaded yet.

PS: re: licensing pop music: Journey's music is a lot cheaper to license than the Beatles as well. Something the writer should have mentioned in an article about licensing music, esp if arguing its alleged cultural significance.

That "Don't Stop Believin'" has sold more copies than any other song not released in this century is not indicative it is the most culturally significant song of all time. It has no social consciousness and has no other redeeming value other than that it is extremely generic and hasn't got any controversial content or political, cultural or social message to deliver. I'd say the huge sales in combination with the lack of social consciousness makes it the most culturally insignificant song of all time.

Without a doubt, the most culturally significant song of all time has to be the worldwide broadcast of "All You Need Is Love." #2 is likely "We are the World." #3 is probably "Candle in the Wind 1997".

If the Times is going to continue to make such absurd, and frankly offensive remarks, I'm going to stop reading it and relegate it to CNN.com status.

It now gets an automatic "skip" when it comes starts on our local bar's digital jukebox. If the person complains he gets his 50 cents back. But no one usually comes forth out of embarrassment.

Get a grip all you musical snobs. Oh so you are too cool for Journey. Wow, look how sophisticated you are! You keep living your lives knowing how much better you are than the rest of us, and we'll keep living ours having a good time and not worrying about such nonsense. If you can't enjoy "Don't Stop Believin'", then you take yourself way too seriously.

It was just an OKAY song before David Chase used it in that God awful ending to his otherwise great TV show. Now I hate it.

I'll go with Yesterday by the Beatles.

A low point on music history for sure!

The song was also used in "Family Guy" and "Scrubs". I think it is a generic cheesy pop song. Most significant song of all time? Um, no. "Rock Around the Clock" maybe? One of the songs that launched rock & roll. "Don't Stop Believing" is just used so often because its lyrcis are so generic they can be applied to any situation. It carries no specific cultural touchstone, holds no meaning to any era. I don't see anything wrong with the structure. It is a silly pop song like scores of other silly pop songs. Actually, unorthodox structure might be a point in its favor.

Touchstone - noun: a basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated...

There is absolutely no way that song qualifies in terms of quality...(it might in terms of banality)...

"We Are The World", it is a monumental collaboration created by reading down the Billboard lists to create an American version stop-hunger single to outsell Band Aid's "Do They Know Its Christmas." Both sing of an ongoing problem that the ordinary person only thinks about when it is shown one the evening news.

Regarding Elton John, 'Candle in the Wind" and the rewrite some 24 years later for Princess Diana "Goodbye England's Rose", both only sing to sad side of celebrity. A better Elton John song about the dark side of celebrity, is "Empty Garden", his tribute to John Lennon.

"All You Need Is Love" is socially trite when you compare it to others in the Beatles library like Eleanor Rigby and Nowhere Man. However, both of these sing to the forgotten people, those who struggle everyday in their own little worlds and try to avoid celebrity and controversy. The same type of people in the lyrics of "Don't Stop Believin".

As to "Don't Stop Believin" being culturally insignificant, maybe it is because the culture it sings to is not in the news everyday. It speaks, like so many Journey songs, about everyday people just trying to get along in the world. It speaks of the ignored part of world culture, the ones in the shadows who work everyday just to survive.

The song has definitely been overused of late, but maybe its overuse signifies how much we need a positive song during these negative times. However, if the song signifies something about our culture, even inversely, then that makes it culturally significant.

Actually the Journey fans at my HS were not neanderthals, but into the sensitive yet even more rancid cheesiness of Dan Fogelberg, Cat Stevens, Stevie Nicks...I felt embarassed for them but being into more than a few critically savaged bands myself (Yes, Genesis) I guess I have no right to cast stones..

You must have missed the news. Constantine Maroulis is no longer described as an "Idol also-ran" now that he's a Tony nominated actor for his performance as the male lead in Broadway's hit musical, Rock of Ages.

Gee Beev! Journey sucks ass!

When I am at the house with teen guests and I put on a Beatles song I typically get a shoulder shrug or disinterest. But if I play "Don't stop believing" they all sing along happily.

Stop with the snobby attitudes. Not everyone is going to hail whatever you claim to be the "best song ever" to be so. It is an opinion... however what isn't an opinion is how popular Journey's classic is.

Also, anyone who is young that wants to bash older tunes... go ahead and keep listening to 50 cent. I'm sure 30 years from now they'll be jamming "In da club" in movies to make you happy. (Of course I'm being sarcastic. Today's music has little long-term appeal like 80's music.)

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"
Or the ear of the beholder... Everyone has their own opinion about what was "The greatest song ever" (for them). And in this regard, everyone's right. Everyone's a winner. I like too many songs, singers & bands to pick just one but for me a great song has to have a catchy melody, interesting story, entertaining lyrics & strong vocals.
Cheers, David Rubin
http://cdbaby.com/cd/davidrubin7

I can't believe that the writer did such a poor job of researching this story that he didn't know that Don't Stop Believin' has become the 8th Inning inspiration song at Dodger Stadium - played in EVERY game before the Dodgers bat in the bottom of the 8th when they're behind or tied!
How do you miss 50,000 people singing along from the top of Chavez Ravine?
Opinion about songs is one thing, but know your subject before you write about it.

 
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