Pop Goes the Culture: “Don’t Stop Believin'”: One song’s journey
Pop Goes the Culture: “Don’t Stop Believin’”: One song’s journey

I was sitting in the dark of the Fox Theatre last week watching the thoroughly enjoyable jukebox musical “Rock of Ages” wind to a close when I heard those familiar keyboard chords and the opening lyrics “Just a small-town girl / Livin’ in a lonely world.”

And as the stodgy theater crowd rose to their feet and danced their way through the song’s hope-filled crescendo, I thought to myself “Man, this song is harder to kill than Rasputin.”

It’s not that I don’t enjoy Journey’s hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” it’s just that I’m fascinated how this song is more popular now than it was when it was first released more than 30 years ago.

Not only has it seen new life, cropping up everywhere from NBA games to karaoke bars, it has also become the most downloaded song from the 20th Century on iTunes, beating the likes of Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and The Beatles.

Clearly, most of the credit has to go to pop culture which, in addition to closing out “Rock of Ages,” the song has also been used to triumphantly introduce us to those kids from “Glee” and also as the music to which Tony Soprano may or may not have been whacked too.

Before that, it had been shown some love in movies like “The Wedding Singer” and “Monster” and embraced by sports teams like the 2005 Chicago White Sox.

Now, this is not the first time pop culture has given a second life to a song, take “Wayne’s World” and the resurgence of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But no song has ever permeated so many aspects of society or crossed so many generations on its second time around like “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

But why this song, and more importantly, why Journey? Growing up in the early- to mid-’90s you would be hard-pressed to find a band less revered as they exemplified the cheesiness and excess of ’80s arena rock.

If you wanted to bust up a high-school kegger faster than a call to the cops you could just put on a little “Open Arms.” And no music video is more horribly hilarious than “Separate Ways,” just visit YouTube for proof.

I needed a little perspective, so I turned to St. Louis radio fixture Rich Dalton, better known as Radio Rich of the classic rock station KHITS 96.

Dalton was there when “Don’t Stop Believin'” first hit the airwaves (played on something called “vinyl records”) and saw little indication of the song’s future immortality.

“Journey was a big band, in the groove, and riding a string of hits,” Dalton said. “It didn’t seem to stand out from their other big songs.”

Even with the song’s recent popularity, Dalton even finds it hard to elevate its place in rock history.

“In my 43 years in radio, I have seen many groups and songs go in and out of popularity. This is why I don’t see anything remarkable about “Believin’,” Dalton said. “I am not knocking the song or Journey or denigrating their success at all, I am just saying that to me, it is rock as usual.”

So then there has to be something within the fabric of the song itself, something that makes it stand out as more than just a simple hit of nostalgia for lovers of big hair and power ballads. Dalton has a little insight into what he thinks is the secret to the song’s success.

“The song obviously resonates with people of any age who are becoming bewildered by the amazing rate of change that we are currently experiencing. Even younger persons who are better able to adapt, still need something to rely on — something to ‘believe’ in,” Dalton said. “I think that most of the people who revere this song are attracted to what they perceive as a message of hope and optimism.”

There’s something to be said for a dose of unadulterated hope, especially in this day and age. With a present that’s been rocky for the past several years, it’s easy to want to believe in a better and brighter future. Heck, we’ve seen a presidential election swayed by two words, “hope” and “change.”

No wonder a song that preaches simple, over-the-top optimism has found such a large audience here in 21st Century America; it’s kind of scary out there. Combine that with the structure of the song that builds and builds, waiting almost until the end to blast you with its sunny chorus.

When it’s all over, it really is hard to stop believing, and just like that, a song that was destined for trivia nights and Deep Track Tuesdays has become a timeless classic. All it took was a handful of friendly reminders from pop culture, a solid hook, and a straightforward, upbeat message.

They say timing is everything and “Don’t Stop Believin'” certainly makes that case; meanwhile, Foreigner quietly waits for an America that wants to know what love is.

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