“Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey is still a hugely popular song today, even though it is 30 years old. We hear it on the radio, on most “road trip mix CDs,” and at any karaoke or piano bar each and every time we go. And whenever we hear it, we sing along, probably at the top of our lungs. And some people totally go ape when they hear it. Some people scream and cheer when they hear that opening piano riff, some will physically freak out and treat the song like it is the last time they will ever hear music—and it isn’t always drunk people. I have seen this happen multiple times and it has made me ask myself: Is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ as good a song as we think it is?
I don’t think so. And I say this even though I’ve liked the song quite a bit ever since I got my first Journey CD (Journey’s Greatest Hits) in high school—so in spite of the critical analysis I’m about to unleash, keep in mind that I do like this song.
There are a lot of things to consider when trying to determine if the song is as good as people commonly think. Let’s start with the lyrics.
Does “Don’t Stop Believin’” have particularly good lyrics? Not really—they rhyme “going anywhere” with “going anywhere,” for Pete’s sake. And I don’t think Journey is telling us anything we haven’t been told before—the message isn’t new and inspiring. There are plenty of songs about not giving up. Why not just listen to “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, “Hold On” by Kansas, or “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child? How about “I Will Survive” or “I Wont Back Down?” No, the lyrics don’t make the song.
We could argue that a “good” song is usually catchy. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is certainly catchy, but why? The famous chorus, which includes the song’s title, doesn’t even happen until there are only about 50 seconds left of the song. The whole song is over four minutes long. If the chorus is the real hook of the song—as in, the main reason a song is catchy or worth listening to—then the first three and a half minutes of Journey’s most famous song is at least relatively boring, or pointless, or a long-winded uphill climb to the payoff. There are three verses, two pre-choruses (neither of which happen right before the chorus) and several instrumental breaks before the big finish. It could be argued that the rest of the song is so good that it doesn’t matter, and that’s why one might not notice that there isn’t a chorus until the very end of the song. This might be a valid point, especially because the only thing that separates the chorus from the verses is the lyrics. The chord progression in the intro, verses, and chorus are exactly the same: E-B-C#m-A and E-B-G#m-A back and forth (though, as a listener, you would probably never notice the difference between the C#m and the G#m).
This is proven to be a catchy chord progression not only because it holds our attention until and during the chorus, but because it is maybe the most overused chord progression in rock/pop music history. I wish I could say this is something I discovered on my own, but instead a youtube video by an Australian comedy band called the “Axis of Awesome” showed me this when they played a I-V-vi-IV chord progression (which, if it were in the key of E major, would be exactly Journey’s “E-B-C#m-A”—so, the first, third, fifth, etc. phrase of each verse and the chorus) and then proceeded to sing a huge number of songs along with the looping chord progression. According to the video and my own discoveries, this chord pattern, played at various speeds, and depending on the key can become the tune of:
- “With or Without You” by U2
- “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
- “Kids” by MGMT (Weezer also discovered the last two’s chord progression and made a mash-up of it)
- “When I Come Around” by Greenday
- “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
- “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt
- “Winter Winds” by Mumford and Sons
- “Blessed by Your Name” by a million different praise and worship bands
- “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5
- “Forever Young” by Alphaville
- “Take on Me” by A-ha
- “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz
- “Africa” by Toto
…as well as most other pop songs (I’m exaggerating, but not much). This is clearly not a very original chord progression, but maybe there is another reason “Don’t Stop Believin’” is bigger song than these above.
Some people (read: guitar nerds like myself) might base some of the value of a song on its guitar solo—which in this case happens right before the chorus, and might indicate to you that the song is about to end if you were listening to it for the first time. But the solo in “Don’t Stop Belivin’” is nothing to write home about. It is short, unchallenging from a technical standpoint, only about 5 or 6 different notes, and, to me, pretty unmemorable. It’s no solo from “Crazy Train” or “Comfortably Numb,” that is for sure.
So why aren’t a lot of songs with better lyrics, chord progressions, or guitar solos as popular as an arena rock hit that is 30 years old?
“Don’t Stop Believin’” has been legally downloaded well over 4 million times, making it the most downloaded song of all time not written in the 21st century. This trend didn’t start until about 2005 or so, and I would assume it was downloaded by people who either were somewhat new to “Don’t Stop Believin’”, or by people who probably didn’t already have a Greatest Hits CD or a copy of the album Escape (sometimes written E5C4P3), from which the song originally appeared. I say this because I don’t know why someone would pay extra money to put the song into iTunes if he or she had those CDs already.
My theory is that this trend spawned from the song’s use in television, starting with an episode of Family Guy in 2005. I remember watching this episode, and many of my friends watched it, too, because this was pretty close to when Family Guy had come back on the air after being cancelled (it was brought back to life by huge success, thanks to DVD sales and syndication, and this was way back when Brian was the voice of reason instead of a liberal douche, and Stewie was evil instead of homosexual, to provide some context). In the episode, in order to save their beloved dying bar, Peter and his friends play “Don’t Stop Believin’” on a karaoke machine to draw in a crowd, and everyone across the entire city stops what they are doing once they hear the music in order to join them in singing. For example, there is a part where pallbearers drop a casket in order to run to the bar to sing, and the widow stops her weeping to say, “Hey that’s Journey!” and run off to the bar also. I was quite familiar with Journey at this point and I remember finding the bit really funny and thinking to myself, “I get it—no one would actually act that way about Journey. I’ve heard ‘em. No one thinks that highly of them. It’s ironic. I get it.” Little did I know that, perhaps partially because of this cartoon clip, people really would be going crazy over “Don’t Stop Believin’” if they heard it played at a bar, in a car, or by a live band. I have seen this, though obviously not to the degree Family Guy joked about.
“Don’t Stop Believin’” is also played during the series finale of The Sopranos, which was a huge event for television in 2007. It was around this time and the following years (2008-2010) that the downloading of this song really skyrocketed on iTunes.
By the time Glee premiered on television, “Don’t Stop Believin’” was well established as a go-to fun/party/hopeful/drinking/already drunk, rock/pop, new-old classic. The members of the Glee club sang this song on their premier. Glee spread the song to viewers who may have not already caught the episodes of Family Guy or The Sopranos and effectively advanced the song’s popularity again.
So, Steve Perry, you reclusive J.D. Salinger of arena rock vocalists, you have television to thank for all the extra money you’ve gotten in the 2000’s.
The recent re-success of “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a cultural thing. It is kind of like it is 1982 again and the song still came out fairly recently and is still cool and way too fun to sing along with. But do any “Don’t Stop Believin’” fans (“Believers”?) feel the same way, or even close to the same way, about other Journey songs, like “Be Good To Yourself” (1986) or “Only The Young” (1985)? Both songs reached #9 on the Billboard charts when they were released, just like “Don’t Stop Believin’” did in ‘81. Probably not, if they have even ever heard them. Even when looking merely at other Journey songs, there should be several songs more prominent in today’s pop culture than “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” reached #8, “Who’s Crying Now” reached #4, and “Open Arms” reached #2. I’m not saying “Don’t Stop Believin’” isn’t good—again, I am a fan—but I would say there are even better songs in Journey’s catalogue. “Lights” has far more impressive vocals, “Faithfully” is way more thoughtfully written, and “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” is just way cooler.
I do not think “Don’t Stop Believin’” really deserves the credit it has been given by people. It’s good. In the right setting, maybe really good. But it isn’t something to scream in excitement about or weep over (thankfully I’ve only seen the former and not the latter, though I’m sure it happens). So, guys, I think we should all agree to take it down a notch. Maybe let’s focus our attention on a song more musically intelligent (“Freewill” by Rush?) or straight-up catchy (“Your Love” by The Outfield?) for a little while. Or we could switch our semi-mindless affection to “Wheel in The Sky” for a while (still Journey!!) and come back to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a few years when we’ve forgotten how good it is, instead of how not-great it is.