Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Don't Stop Believin': it goes on and on and on and on

Hold on to that feel-yeah-yeah-ah...

I can't stop believin'.

One of the first concerts I ever saw was Journey at the Winnipeg Arena (opening act: Greg Kihn!). I've never been much a fan of faux-metal power ballads, but Don't Stop Believin' was a hit, I genuinely loved it, and I wanted to see it live.

I had to sit through Open Arms to do it, but it was worth it. Little did I know that the song would haunt me (and you, probably) for the rest of my natural life. Would someone please add it to the periodic table? Next to helium would be about right...

The latest edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide calls the song, "a perfect cheese-metal hymn to streetlight people everywhere, the strangers searching up and down the boulevard, playing anything to roll the dice, just one more time."

The guide also helpfully points out that there is no such place as "South Detroit," famously namechecked in the third line of the song, and parodied when the Rock of Ages cast performed it on the Tony Awards ("Michigan!"):

The Broadway stage is probably the perfect place for the song. Hence, Rock of Ages performing it on the Tony Awards the very same week as the cast of Glee did it on the TV show:

Inspired by Petra Haden?

The ultimate karaoke song?

Rolling Stone makes a powerful argument that the only place to fully experience the song is at the karaoke bar:

"To, understand what Steve and the guys were trying to say, you have to go there and join the streetlight people, as the lights go down in the city."

I have seen the song performed at the karaoke bar, and it is something to behold: every small-town girl, preferably drunk, who feels like she's livin' in a lonely world, singing her small-town heart out with 30 of her closest, loneliest friends.

Followed by every sarcastic guy who wants to mock its over-the-top "sincerity" (been there, done that):

This could account for the song's longevity: is Don't Stop Believin' the ultimate sincere power ballad for lonely people, an elaborate exercise in irony, or a practical joke - even, perhaps, on the band itself? More on that later.

The song

I legitimately like Don't Stop Believin', even though I had to wear a paper bag over my head when I recently bought "Journey's Greatest Hits" (remastered!) in the used bin at the Grant Park CD store. While I was at it, I should've bought Loverboy's Big Ones - quite possibly too embarrassing for even a paper bag.

Don't Stop Believin's chorused piano riff is one of the best openings in rock and roll, bar none. In just 17 seconds, it hints that we're about to hear some deep, important, heavy stuff: metal ballad style.

At First Avenue in Minneapolis, that city's alternative and dance bar, they play the song regularly before live performances, and the opening riff always gets shouts of approval from the audience. Ironic approval, quite possibly, but approval nonetheless.

What follows is a pretty standard rock and roll "story song." Like Young Turks or Johnny and Mary or a million others, it takes the standard boy-and-girl story, and makes larger connections to common human emotions: it's quite possible that a listener who just won the lottery and feels like the "king of the world!" would love the song just as much as someone coming home from the all-night shift at Burger King on an empty train, who feels that his or her "dreams never come true."

It is Journey, so the lyrics are pretty terrible; however, some of the best bands in rock have the ability to take cheesy lyrics and make them sound really, really important. U2, anyone? This song does the same.

The song structure isn't as standard as the story: we don't hear the title of the song, or even the chorus, until the fade out, with only less than a minute of the song left. For a hit song that's famous for inspiring drunken karaoke singalongs, this is especially odd. Yet it works - more than Asia's Heat of the Moment, anyway.

The revival starts here

We probably owe all of this Journey lovin' to the Sopranos finale, which reclaimed the song as the soundtrack to Tony and his family's slaughter. Or did they live?

At the time, much was made of Steve Perry's reluctance to approve the song, "insisting on knowing what happens to Tony Soprano before signing off. "

Said Perry to MTV:
"The request came in a few weeks ago and it wasn't until Thursday that it got approval, because I was concerned. I told them, 'Unless I know what happens — and I will swear to secrecy — I can't in good conscience feel good about its use.'"

"When I saw ['The Sopranos'] last night, what I saw was the director pull back into the foundation that was there all along during the most important moment when all this chaos [is going on]. The song was, literally, cutting from lyric to lyric, from mother to son to James [Gandolfini] at the key moment and on [the lyric] 'streetlight people,' it pulls back with the cameras to reveal a streetlight and I said, 'My God, this director [Chase] got it. He got the song!"
So, the answer to the question: "Is the band in on the irony?" would have to be a "no," then. Which makes it very hard to explain the licensing behind the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of the song on Total Body Workout, playable for free right here on Amazon.com.

It goes on and on and on and on...

Update, May 14, 2011:
 Another chapter in the song's mythology. American Idol's James Durbin sang it on last week's show and, ironically, got eliminated from the competition. You can stop believing now, James.


  1. When this post came up in Google Reader, I came straight to it to ask if you'd seen the version on Glee! Of course, Kenton, you were on top of it.

    It's quite the song.

    (Jenny Henk)

  2. Thanks, Jenny.

    I've never had a post generate more e-mails than this one. People really love - and hate - this song.

    Now if we could only get Steve Perry to rejoin the band, life would be sweet.


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