Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and millennial transcendence

A few weeks ago, I got to speak with the Ottawa Citizen about Journey.

Pop life is weird.

Friends and colleagues know that Don’t Stop Believin’ is a particular fascination of mine. (Here’s a post I wrote about it almost five years ago.) I’ve written an academic paper on the song, one that I’d love to shop around for publication if I ever could find the time to fix it up a bit. I’ve taken flack from some friends for hyperbolically calling the song “the Rosetta stone for 21st century music,” which is admittedly a bit extreme but also a tiny bit truthful: a 30-year-old song by a joke-worthy AOR band becoming the biggest selling catalogue track in digital sales history and something of an anthem for the millennial generation? In that story is a lot to unpack about how recordings circulate and are appreciated in the digital age.

The Citizen article covers a number of the points I tend to make about the song, and I was glad that the writer and I got a good deal of time to talk through it. My primary quote in the article is hits upon what I feel are a few of the important lessons in the song’s second life:

Music journalist Ryan McNutt, who is doing a master’s degree in musicology at Dalhousie University, was born a year after Don’t Stop was released. He recalls the song was always the last-rush song played by the DJ while he was involved in a student debating society about six years ago. It always got the students out on the dance floor.

“I think growing up in the digital age has given the Millennial generation a more nuanced relationship with the past,” he says.

People who like the song can simply download it without having to commit to the whole album, display the cheesy cover art or even necessarily be Journey fans.

Millennials “decontextualize” and “repurpose” the past, he says. They grew up thinking of themselves as performers. They post videos of themselves on YouTube and made American Idol a hot property. (Coincidentally, Idol judge Randy Jackson was a session musician with Journey in the mid-80s)

There’s a lot more to my thoughts on the song, of course, but I hesitate to spoil my entire thought process lest I eventually publish that paper someday. (Silly academia and its wonky ways.) But later on in the Citizen article, another line of argument comes up that I think is worth spending a little bit of time on:

“I think many people felt a sense of optimism in 2008 that seemed to be connected to Obama’s promise of change and the rhetoric of hope that surrounded his campaign,” says [Carleton University music professor Jesse] Stewart.

“Maybe the lyrics of Don’t Stop Believin’ resonated with that sentiment on some level, articulating it musically. But that doesn’t explain why the song has remained so popular in the years since, given the seemingly less hopeful economic and political outlook.”

Later, Stewart adds:

Stewart says he wouldn’t question anyone’s motivation for liking a particular song.

“But I can’t help but feel that some people enjoy Don’t Stop Believin’ — and other songs of its ilk — in an ironic way. The idea that we can enjoy it now precisely because it is so cheesy and its lyrics so naive by 2012 standards.”

The writer and I talked around these ideas in our interview, and I just couldn’t get behind either of them. I think irony is far too simple and, frankly, too Gen-X an idea to reflect the kind of appropriation that’s happening with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And the idea that it reflects earnest, genuine optimism — or even an optimism in denial — also seems too simple.

What I think it’s partly about (and this is an idea I never thought about for my paper itself) is transcendence.

The other week, the pop world got new singles from Ke$ha and One Direction, both with similar concepts: give it all, now, while we’re young.

To be fair, “Die Young’s” death simile is a bit more extreme than “Live While We’re Young’s” existential threat of aging (oooooo scary, scary aging) but the message is the same: we need to dance and party tonight because this moment isn’t going to last.

That isn’t exactly strange. Pop music has always been about the effervescent now, about living for the moment. But it also can contextualize that moment in a broader narrative: love, pain, history, trauma, joy, hope. Lately, though, the pop charts seem dominated by tracks that are about nothing more than dancing, partying and living for the moment – not because this moment is so worth living, but because if we don’t celebrate now, it may not be around much longer.

Some examples, other than the above? Just a few: The title of fun’s “We Are Young” implies its alternative: that we will eventually get old. Pitbull wants you to give him everything “because we might not get tomorrow.” Britney wants you to “keep on dancing till the world ends.” Etcetera, etcetera.

In other words: at the same time that these songs celebrate the here and now, they do so with the weight of fatalism. It’s apocalypse pop, and suggests a world-weariness and pessimism that betrays the songs’ buoyancy and fun.

Then there’s the fact that it’s the millenials, not the Xers, who finally succeeded in making electronic dance music (EDM) a phenomenon in America. Easily the most important trend happening in music today, the rise of EDM echoes this pop fatalism, just without lyrics: transcendence of the moment, denial of any politics or purpose beyond the beat, the drop, the hit. It’s sensation and pleasure prioritized above all else, every bit the denial of tomorrow as the songs cited above.

The hyperbole of “Don’t Stop Believin'” may not be as on-the-nose as these trends, but I can’t help but feel it’s part of the same push for in-the-moment transcendence. When I see people treat “Don’t Stop Believin'” as a dance anthem at a club, they’re losing themselves in the song’s sentiments, but only for four fleeting minutes. During that time, they’re performing, totally buying into its optimism, its ridiculous streetlight people, its belt-your-lungs-out sentiments. But few of them, I’d wager, are actually going home and putting on “Don’t Stop Believin'” when they’re feeling down, or when they need a life mantra.

The song’s adoption isn’t about believin’ in general: it’s about believin’ now, on the dance floor, and forgetting for a few minutes that, really, there may not be much out there to believe in. After all, the millennial generation is generation climate change, generation global economic meltdown, generation student debt. I can’t help but feel like the millennial generation has more of a sense of what lies ahead of them than they’re sometimes given credit for.

Can we really blame them for wanting to believe, even if only on the dance floor?

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