'Don't Stop Believin" Goes On And On, Because We Need It To

Sep 16, 2019
Originally published on September 16, 2019 1:18 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


It's midnight on a Tuesday in Richmond, Va. At Sticky Rice, a sushi joint that hosts this college town's most raucous karaoke night, the crowd is already at fire-code capacity, and would-be crooners are forming a line outside. At around 12:30 a.m., a set of famous piano chords begins to play, and the place explodes. Friends stand together on tables; the people stuck in line outside press against the windows. For a fleeting moment, everyone's on the same midnight train going anywhere.

Twenty-somethings Matt Malone and Shilpa Gangisetty are tonight's lucky performers of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," for which the DJ has received as many as five requests — though you can't exactly hear their singing beneath the overflowing crowd shouting along. When they're done, Gangisetty, who is Indian American, says she loves the song because it's something she can enjoy with her immigrant parents.

"This came out right before my parents came to this country," she says. "There aren't too many cultural things that we can relate on."

"It's like the 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' of, like, middle school," Malone chimes in. "You have to know it. Everyone hates to love it."

Thirty-eight years after it debuted on the album Escape, "Don't Stop Believin'" is the go-to anthem for perseverance that has itself persevered, successfully riding wave after new wave of media. Though born in the era of rock radio and cassette mixtapes, the song found its real glory at the dawn of binge TV and the smartphone, and it has woven its way into weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations, the 2005 World Series, The Sopranos and Glee.

YouTube

Its fate was hardly a given. Critic Deborah Frost didn't even mention "Don't Stop Believin'" by name in her October 1981 review of Escape in Rolling Stone, which gave the album two out of five stars. "Maybe," she wrote, "there really are a lot of 'streetlight people' out there. If so, my guess is that they'll soon glow out of it." They didn't: According to Nielsen Music, "Don't Stop Believin'" holds the record as the most downloaded 20th-century song, and it has nearly 700 million streams on Spotify, at last count. What is it about this track that just won't stop?

The story of the song itself begins with Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain. In the late 1970s, he was a struggling rocker who was ready to quit SoCal and move back to Chicago. Cain says everything had been going wrong: He and his girlfriend had split up, and he'd had to pay a costly vet bill to save his dog after it was hit by a car.

"I called my father for some money," he says. "I said, 'Dad, I'm out of cash here. ... Should I come home? Is this thing just not, you know, panning out?' And he told me, 'We've always had a vision, son. Don't stop believing.' I had a lyric book next to me, and I wrote it down."

Things started looking up for the musician after that. Cain found himself in a band opening up for mega-act Journey. Then, Journey itself poached him.

In 1981, when the band was recording Escape, lead singer Steve Perry asked Cain to come up with a final track. Cain still had his dad's advice in the dog-eared lyric book and from it drew inspiration for the pedaled, keep-the-faith piano part that builds and releases over and over until the phrase itself arrives in the chorus, more than three-quarters of the way into the track.

The characters introduced in the first verse, a small-town girl and a South Detroit city boy, are familiar by now — enough so that it's rarely addressed that there is no such neighborhood as South Detroit, apart from Perry needing an extra syllable. As for the singer in the smoky room with wine and cheap perfume, that tableau evokes the desperation Cain says he felt at the Sunset Strip's Whisky a Go Go during his rough Los Angeles days.

"I really believe this song is about wanting to make it," he says, "Where you think you're stuck in life — that you're able to get out, the same way I got out of Chicago."

The fictional William McKinley High School's glee club sang "Don't Stop Believin'" in a 2009 episode of Fox's Glee.
FOX Image Collection / Getty Images

By the late 1990s, Perry had left Journey, and the band's career was in the wilderness. But the requests for "Don't Stop Believin'" kept coming.

Charlize Theron roller-skated to the song in her Oscar-winning turn as a serial killer in 2003's Monster. Four years later, The Sopranos ended its pioneering six-season run on HBO with — spoiler alert — a tense sequence involving a diner and parallel parking, soundtracked by "Don't Stop Believin'." Downloads of the track on iTunes soared. In 2009, the earnest high school show choir on Glee covered the song for the first of several times throughout the series' run, sending its download numbers through the roof again.

"Don't Stop Believin'" has been heard on Scrubs, South Park and Family Guy. A string ensemble played it in the Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer. It was the rally song for the Chicago White Sox in the team's 2005 World Series run, and it was the climax of the hit Broadway jukebox musical Rock of Ages. On social media, you can find plenty of photos of stop signs playfully defaced with the title exhortation.

For all its new success, Journey still needed a new lead singer who had something approximating Perry's trademark high tenor altino. Desperate, guitarist Neal Schon turned to searching for singers on YouTube — where, late one night, he discovered Arnel Pineda, a formerly homeless kid in the Philippines who was covering the band's ballads at smoky venues that reeked of wine and cheap perfume.

YouTube

In 2007, Journey flew him to the U.S. for a tryout and hired him — a fairy-tale story chronicled in the 2009 documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey.

Pineda told CBS News in 2012, "Even before I discovered 'Don't Stop Believin,' it has been my motto — you know, to never stop believing in myself. The life that I've gone through, all those hardships, I never stopped believing that someday there is something magical that will happen in my life."

As for Frost — the critic who originally panned Escape in Rolling Stone — she tells NPR that four decades later she's still not a fan but that maybe those streetlight people might — might — have a point.

"You know, I think maybe it helps them celebrate their high school years — or their hopes," she says. "And if it does, what can I tell you? Good for them."

Roben Farzad is the host of Full Disclosure on NPR member station VPM.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Don't stop believin'.

NOEL KING, HOST:

You don't stop hearin' it. Journey debuted this song in 1981. It was a Top 40 hit back then, and "Don't Stop Believin'" has become even more popular over the last 38 years. As part of our American Anthem series, Roben Farzad of member station VPM has the story of a song that's become an inspiration for people across generations.

ROBEN FARZAD, BYLINE: Jonathan Cain was a struggling, down-on-his-luck rocker in the 1970s. He was ready to quit the LA music scene.

JONATHAN CAIN: Everything had been going wrong - girlfriend left; dog got hit by a car. I called my father for some money. I said, Dad, I'm out of cash here.

FARZAD: Cain asked his dad if he should move back to Chicago.

CAIN: And he told me - you know, we've always had a vision, son, and don't stop believing. And so I had a lyric book next to me, and I wrote it down in my lyric book.

FARZAD: He finally got his big break when Journey recruited him as its new keyboardist. Frontman Steve Perry asked Jonathan Cain to write a song for the upcoming album, "Escape." Cain's dad's advice inspired his insistent and now-famous piano opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOURNEY SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

FARZAD: Steve Perry brought soaring vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Oh, the movie never ends. It goes on and on and on and on.

FARZAD: And Neal Schon, his guitar sounding like a midnight train whizzing right past you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOURNEY SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

FARZAD: The song builds and releases, culminating in the chorus, finally arriving more than three-quarters of the way into the track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Don't stop believin'. Hold on to that feeling. Streetlights, people, oh.

FARZAD: Critic Deborah Frost didn't even mention "Don't Stop Believin'" by name in her record review for Rolling Stone, which gave the Journey album two out of five stars.

DEBORAH FROST: I would have given it a minus a hundred - just incredibly cheesy, cheesy track.

FARZAD: Maybe so, but it's incredibly popular.

According to Nielsen Music, "Don't Stop Believin'" now holds the record as the most downloaded 20th-century song. A song birthed in the era of mixed tapes and rock radio found its glory in the era of binge TV and streaming.

Its revival started with Adam Sandler's 1998 comedy "The Wedding Singer." In 2003, Charlize Theron used "Don't Stop Believin'" in her Oscar-winning turn in "Monster." In 2007, "The Sopranos" ended with that tense diner scene soundtracked to "Don't Stop Believin'." Downloads of the songs soared. Then, in 2009, the hit TV show "Glee" covered the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

GLEE CAST: (Vocalizing).

FARZAD: Again, downloads - both the original track and the "Glee" cover - spiked. It landed in a Broadway musical, as the rally song for the Chicago White Sox's 2005 World Series run. "Don't Stop Believin'" is an anthem for persevering and keeping the faith. The singer in a smoky room and smell of wine and cheap perfume evokes Jonathan Cain's struggling days on LA's Sunset Strip.

CAIN: And I said, I really believe this song is about wanting to make it. You know? And you're not stuck where you think you're stuck in life - you know? - that you're able to get out the same way I got out of Chicago - to not stop believin'.

FARZAD: And here's where the story takes an unlikely turn. Steve Perry left the band in 1998. And for a decade, Journey could not find the lead singer who could pull off Perry's legendary tenor altino.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Hiding somewhere in the night.

FARZAD: Guitarist Neal Schon was desperate. Late one night on YouTube, he discovered a lounge singer in the Philippines covering the band's ballads. He reached out to the young man, Arnel Pineda, a formerly homeless kid. He thought he was being pranked. In 2007, the band flew him to the U.S. and hired him - a fairy tale story that was the subject of the documentary "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey." Here's Pineda singing with Journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN': EVERYMAN'S JOURNEY")

ARNEL PINEDA: (Singing) Just a small town girl living in a lonely world, she took the midnight train going anywhere.

FARZAD: Arnel Pineda says the story of "Don't Stop Believin'" felt like his own story after living on Manila's streets and sleeping in a park. He spoke with Oprah Winfrey in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OPRAH")

PINEDA: I never dreamed that big. All I wanted was, you know, to be able to get out of it - the pain and the poverty - you know? - live decently.

UNIDENTIFIED DJ: Brett (ph), come on up.

FARZAD: A world away in Richmond, Va., the spirit of the song animates karaoke night. It's midnight Tuesday at Sticky Rice, a sushi joint that hosts the college town's most raucous singalong. The restaurant is fully packed, and the line is out the door.

UNIDENTIFIED DJ: So ladies and gentlemen, don't be shy. Here we go.

FARZAD: Twenty-somethings Shilpa Gangisetty and Matt Malone are tonight's lucky believers, prevailing over at least five other karaoke-ers who requested the Journey anthem.

SHILPA GANGISETTY: I'm an Indian American, actually, and this song is something that my parents know. And this came out right before my parents came to this country. So it's really interesting because there aren't too many cultural things that we can relate on, but I know this is a song that my dad knows.

MATT MALONE: It's like Itsy Bitsy Spider or Miss Mary Mack. But like...

GANGISETTY: Exactly.

MALONE: ...Once you get into middle school, it's like "Don't Stop Believin'." And like, that - you have to know it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, it was good for me.

MALONE: Everybody hates to love it.

FARZAD: Even the folks stuck outside - they're under a streetlight - press against the windows and mouth lyrics.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Just a small town girl living in a lonely world, she took the midnight train going anywhere. Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit...

FARZAD: Whether you sing along ironically or straight - whether it won you over on rock radio, mixtape, iTunes, binge TV or at acapella lessons - it's a mainstay at bar mitzvahs and weddings. For whatever reason, "Don't Stop Believin'" is an anthem for sticking it out. And it goes on and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN' [TECHNO REMIX]")

JOURNEY: (Singing) ...In the night.

FARZAD: For NPR News, I'm Roben Farzad.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOURNEY SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN' [TECHNO REMIX]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.