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Archive for June, 2018

Why it works #2: “Don’t Stop Believin'”

Posted by dlockeretz on June 14, 2018

Artist: Journey

Songwriters: Steve Perry, Neil Schon, Jonathan Cain

“You just don’t like today’s music.”

Guilty as charged. However, that doesn’t mean that classic rock always gets a free pass. There are many songs that make me ask, “Haven’t people gotten tired of this?” In the case of “Don’t Stop Believin'” – the most downloaded of any song released in the 20th century – the answer is a clear “no.” To be sure, its use in “The Sopranos” and its remake by the “Glee” cast has helped it reach new audiences – but love it or hate it, “Don’t Stop Believin'” didn’t need television to get big. As this song closes in on 40, let’s take a look at what’s made it stick around.


The production is polished and the delivery is earnest – but “Don’t Stop Believin'” has the feel of a song that might have been written in five minutes on a napkin at a truck stop diner. Was Steve Perry trying to give a voice to the lonely, dispossessed working class as Springsteen did? If so, he should have dug a little deeper than rhymes such as “girl/world” and “room/perfume.” The chord progression that anchors the song has been used at least as far back as “Let It Be” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” follows it so strictly that the comedy rock group Axis of Awesome uses the song to introduce their video “Four Chords.” Sure, it’s catchy, but so is “Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goal Posts of Life” and last I checked people aren’t breaking the internet to download that one.


For all its commercial success, “Don’t Stop Believin'” breaks a basic songwriting rule. “Life During Wartime” and “Train in Vain” not withstanding, the title of a song should always be obvious. Yet, the actual words “Don’t Stop Believin'” first come in after the three minute mark. By holding off the de-facto chorus of the song until the end, the payoff is stronger. Author Will Byars of The Guardian says, “Over time we learn to appreciate these songs that don’t off load everything in the first minute…you have to invest some emotion in bothering to listen all the way through.” The verses and prechoruses – which can sometimes musically be disposable as songwriters often use these sections to develop the narrative rather than create ear worms – are just as hook heavy as the chorus. And so what if the song’s main selling point is that it’s catchy? If catchiness could be manufactured, everyone would have a number one hit.

Brian Rafferty, author of “Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life” writes, “In the early 90s all the cheesy 80s music got rejected and it basically disappeared. Journey were seen as the kind of overblown arena act that grunge and hip-hop were meant to obliterate.” So why is it that people who were born after the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur sing along? Everything old is new again and millennials may be finding meaning in everything from speakeasies to vinyl to Nintendo, but novelty by nostalgia alone isn’t enough to explain this song’s continued success.


It’s easy to be resentful of others’ successes in the music business, but just because you can’t see the dues that were paid doesn’t mean that the success wasn’t earned. In my lifetime, Journey has never not been huge. However, they struggled for years before hitting it big in in the late 1970s peaking in 1981 with “Don’t Stop Believin'”, the first song on their multi-platinum “Escape” record. According to this Guardian article, the song’s title came from Jonathan Cain’s father, who would tell his struggling son not to stop believing, even as Cain struggled to find success in the 1970s before joining Journey.

Many songs don’t stand up to radio saturation and while for me “Don’t Stop Believin'” is one of them, there are plenty of other songs that I still enjoy as much as I did the first time – either for nostalgia’s sake or because there’s just something about it that gets me – and I’m sure some of them might make peoples’ eyes roll (or in the case of “Carry On Wayward Son”, they definitely do).

Ultimately, “Don’t Stop Belevin” is a song of contradictions. It takes itself seriously but is still relatable. The production pulls out all the stops but the composition is strategic in its revealing of information and musical material. It’s a song that you blast in your car and when you realize that people are looking at you, you reach to roll up the window. But then you say “screw it” because they’re the ones who don’t get it and it’s their loss.


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