How ‘Don’t Stop Believin” Became a ‘Monster’ Hit



POP STARS OF disparate ages and musical styles, when forced to share a stage, can be as awkward together as “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”. They need a song to bring them together – and the one they choose, if it works, can have all the pop-culture portent of a classic TV show’s finale.

There’s no better – or odder – recent example of a musical common bond than the spectacle of seeing Sting, Blondie’s Deborah Harry, hoop-skirted and gray-hair-bewigged Lady Gaga, Elton John, Goldfinger‘s Shirley Bassey and a guitar-strapped Bruce Springsteen on stage in May at Carnegie Hall at the end of a Rainforest Fund benefit. Their unifying hymn? Journey’s 1981 power ballad, ‘Don’t Stop Believin”. The song reached No. 9 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 – by Journey standards, just average – and had faded from pop culture until a comeback in this century’s first decade.

Lady Gaga – the youngest of the sextet and unburdened by being a “rock” legend or interpreter of older show/movie tunes (like Bassey) – seemed a natural for it. But the others? ‘Don’t Stop Believin” used to be thought of, in hip rock circles, as the kind of overly emphatic Top 40 power-ballad – with Steve Perry’s grandiloquent vocals stretching out inspirational catch-phrase lyrics – that Blondie’s and the Police’s New Wave, not to mention Springsteen’s backstreets authenticity, were created to battle. And what’s with that “south Detroit” reference?

But there they were, singing it and looking pretty happy. Maybe not quite as happy, however, as the cast of “Glee,” in this summer’s season finale, where their defiant, fist-pumping version brought a Journey medley to an emotional climax.

‘Don’t Stop Believin” was not Journey’s biggest radio hit. ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Who’s Crying Now’ were bigger and the group had three other songs make the Top Ten. In the immediate decades after the release, it certainly could be heard on classic-rock radio, but it wasn’t considered one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest anthems.

But now, according to Wikipedia, it is the top downloaded pop song – almost four million – of any recorded before the 21st Century. This past summer, Journey’s version was one of iTunes Top Ten most-recorded pop songs. It’s even made Broadway – it’s a showstopper in the hit musical Rock of Ages.

‘Don’t Stop Believin” seems to have been reborn as a heartfelt anthem, an instant evocation of youthful hope and desire for the future. But also one with a film-noir-like dark undercurrent. And both elements appeal to contemporary pop culture.

Though it ends triumphantly, the song opens with Jonathan Cain’s foreboding keyboard signature and then Perry, in a voice choked with melancholy, begins “Just a small town girl/living in a lonely world…” He moves on to describe a scary urban landscape filled with “the smell of wine and cheap perfume,” “shadows searching in the night,” and those “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”.

It’s the song’s triumphal aspect, no doubt, that has spurred much of its revival – Glee taps into it, as did the Chicago White Sox when they made the song an anthem of their 2005 World Championship season.

But Sopranos creator David Chase tapped into the noir quality when he had Tony Soprano choose it on the restaurant jukebox for the dark, mysterious, final episode of the series. The show stops abruptly right after Perry sings ‘Don’t Stop’ at the fade-out.

Perry, who long ago left the band – and, seemingly, being an active musician although he had a 1984 solo hit, ‘Oh Sherrie’, much bigger initially than ‘Don’t Stop Believin” – addressed the resurgence in an interview earlier this year with Britain’s Planet Rock radio station. He recalled how, even though the song was not that big on radio, it resonated with fans at concerts. That helped him believe in it. “Personally, it’s something that means a lot to me,” he said. “…Everybody has emotional issues and problems, and the song has helped me personally to not give up, and I’m finding a lot of people feel that.”

To this writer, the song’s renewal was most helped by its inclusion in 2003 indie film Monster. (Perry gets a credit as music consultant.) It’s a tough, gripping and ultimately tragic story of Ailenne Wuornos, the Florida prostitute executed in 2002 for killing her johns. The movie wasn’t widely seen, but had a strong impact on the creative community – Charlize Theron won the Oscar for transforming herself into the downtrodden, homely Wuornos. (Theron was also a producer.)

Early in the film, the song plays when Ailenne roller-skates at a rink with a girl (played by Christina Ricci) who finds her attractive. They start kissing on the rink, then passionately embrace outside. For both, this constitutes a bold, public moment of coming out and finding love – and, for a while at least, hope. It makes what follows all the sadder, because we glimpse a different path. Monster gave ‘Don’t Stop Believin” a newfound profundity. It was no longer just nostalgia.

In 2003, I interviewed both Theron and director Patty Jenkins about the song choice. “We shot the scene listening to Journey, and it does so much for the movie because it’s such a great song for the movie when you listen to lyrics,” Theron said. “But we had no money in the budget, so I wrote [Perry] a very nice letter just very truthfully saying we had always dreamed of doing this song. We sent all the band members a tape of the movie to watch. Steve called us back. He really loved the film and said he saw what we were trying to do with the music, and that it was a very authentic moment for us in that film.”

He gave approval, and helped Jenkins with other song choices. And in return, Monster helped ‘Don’t Stop Believin”s path to becoming a monster hit all over again.

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