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We May Never Stop Believin' in Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which turns 30 in October, is a warm, inviting place, a four-minutes refuge where nostalgia, irony and pure enjoyment have a drink together in Anytown, Anywhere, without getting into a fistfight.

Released back when you had to get it on clunky vinyl or cassette, the Jonathan Cain/Steve Perry/Neal Schon collaboration is now the best-selling digital song of the 20th century, thanks in part to its inclusion in the final scene of the HBO series “The Sopranos” and placement in the popular Fox Television series “Glee.”

Even after 30 years, few songs have achieved its lasting appeal and broad cultural and generational acceptance. Grandparents dance to it at weddings. As it blares from PA speakers in your town center, a bored woman seated at a metal table mouths the words while her husband peers into his smart-phone. Half-in-the-bag twenty-somethings belt it out at 1:30 a.m., knowing the song -- and the night -- has to end, but wishing it wouldn’t. Kids butcher it, karaoke-style, in your living room.

Steve Waksman, an associate professor of music and American studies at Smith College who studies the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in 19th- and 20th-century American popular culture, has definitely noticed the Journey phenomenon.

“When the ‘Sopranos’ thing happened, I thought it was an odd choice,” Waksman says. “It was clearly meant to be ironic, but also in the world of the characters on the show, they’d probably also think it was a great song. That’s the weird balance that surrounds the current resurgence of familiarity that’s so prevalent in popular culture today.”

Why has the song, which peaked at number 9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1981, endured? The answer, at least in part, is musical/poetic.

Think about the song for a moment: The iconic piano opening. The broadly-painted characters (a lonely, small town girl, a city boy from South Detroit, a fictional place evoking blue-collar dreams of escaping one’s origins) of the opening verse, itself almost chorus-like in its melodic content and the repetitive nature of the lyrics (“midnight train going anywhere”). The full band entrance at the bridge, which coincides with the gathering of “strangers waiting, up and down the boulevard.” The introduction of first-person tense in Verse 3 (“working hard just to get my fill / everybody wants a thrill”), a riff-heavy moment in a lightweight song, where the rock crowd is invited to join in for the first time. The kicked-up dynamics in the guitar solo, which is also the first time you hear the chorus melody, before the life-affirming chorus, which doesn’t even show up until a full three minutes into the song, a commentary on everything that precedes it. The truth is, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a well-crafted -- albeit weirdly-structured -- pop song whose musical content easily stands up to ridicule and irony.

“It’s a complicated song in some ways,” Waksman says. “Ultimately it’s an optimistic song, but the verses aren’t as optimistic as you’d expect in a power ballad.

When Journey’s Escape was released in 1981, Waksman played it often, but later, he says, he noticed a shift.

“There was a point at first where it was not even a guilty pleasure,” Waksman says. “Then it became one. I just tucked the album away. Now I like to pull the [album] back out because of its ubiquity. It’s not just schlock anymore. For a long time it seemed like just schlock.”

The song’s ability to jump across generational lines, apart from its inclusion in “Glee,” Waksman believes, has to do with the mixture of elements the song represents, perhaps what Journey itself represents.

“[Journey] went from pop superstars to embarrassing joke, and they’ve now been resuscitated because they represent a high kind of pop artistry that took over in the early 80s,” says Waksman. ”It’s a compelling mix of songcraft and artistry, but it’s also a song that kind of rocks. Finding those two things in that balance is not easy. Lady Gaga claims to be a fan of arena rock... She can hire Clarence Clemons, and she has the pop thing covered, but I don’t hear the rock. Journey has that punch. The guitar is there, the vocals are part of that high falsetto, those male vocals soaring to the skies like you find with Def Leppard and [Judas Priest’s] Rob Halford... But it’s also super melodic in a way that Rob Halford wasn’t.”

“Don’t Stop Believin’,” perhaps coincidentally, emerged after other popular “Don’t Stop” songs: Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” (1977), Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (1978) and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (1979).

“The ‘Don’t Stop’ thing suggests that something’s trying to make you stop,” Waksman says. “It’s easy to look at what was happening in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s -- economic recession, the Iran hostage situation, the hangover from Watergate -- and notice forces pulling you in downtrodden direction. What did people say about Reagan? He restored people’s faith that good times were ahead.” Waksman believes it’s not too far-fetched, however, to say those songs came out of a certain zeitgeist, one that would clearly strike a similar chord now.

Still, it’s striking how many young folks have taken to it. Of course, the ‘80s have been subject to a revival for two decades, and Waksman acknowledges that ‘80s music has the same aura for young people that people his age feel for ‘60s music. “It’s far enough in the past to be remote and subject to rediscovery,” he says. “I think there’s a larger revival within contemporary pop that’s really rooted in the ‘80s... Another part of it is that ‘80s sounds remain current even though young listeners aren’t a part of that era.”

“There’s a balance that communicates itself across generations,” Waksman believes. “Young people are responding to sheer emotional wallop the song packs. ‘Glee’ tries to push this message of self-fulfillment, achieving your goals. But there’s also a balance between personal fulfilment and social acceptance. Something about that song that resonates with that.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun