Pop culture is pretty clearly cyclical, with fads and fandom coming in and out of fashion on a regular basis. It’s largely because every decade or so a new generation comes of age and breaks out of its own shell and begins to selectively raid the closets of those that came before them.
There’s a great power in this cultural reclamation. While many recovered artifacts are inseparable from history, others become unbound by their previous context when they’re adopted by a new generation. A movie from a famous director can be viewed on its own terms, as opposed to its physical location in his or her filmography. An outfit can become cool and trendy when it was once a conformist norm. And a song once reviled can become a dancefloor anthem.
This past weekend, Dalhousie hosted the CUSID national debating championships, and as a debating “dino” I was volunteering my time as the tournament’s equity officer. The event included a banquet and social Saturday evening at a local hotel complete with DJ entertainment to pass the time between the end of dinner and the announcement of the “break” (the 8 teams and 18 judges who get to take part in the final day’s competition). As is typical, most debaters chose to flee the cash bar confines of the banquet hall for the bottles and flasks of their hotel rooms, leaving the dance floor mostly vacant except for a few brave souls attempting tragically embarrassing impersonations of Soulja Boy.
But as the army of arguers finally arrived for the announcement as the midnight hour drew near, the enthusiasm level increased moment by moment. And then, as the final hurrah – and by special request – the DJ played “Don’t Stop Beliving.”
And shit went crazy.
Apparently, this was far from an isolated incident – it’s become tradition at CUSID tournaments for a while now (just goes to show what I’ve missed since I went into seclusion from the national scene a couple of years ago). But it was still staggering in its scope. Here’s a song that was released as a single in 1981 – before most of the people on that dance floor (myself included) were born. And yet it’s the night’s biggest moment, a massive singalong where everyone knows the words and where CUSID president Nick Shkordoff runs frantically through the crowd leading the charge.
As you’re no doubt aware, debaters aren’t the only ones falling in love with Steve Perry’s saccharinely sweet pipes and that memorable piano riff. The Chicago White Sox used “Don’t Stop Believing” as their theme song during the 2005 World Series, but it was its use in episodes of Family Guy and Lacuna Beach that truly completed its zombie-like reanimation. These appearances actually propelled the song to the top 10 on the iTunes sales chart, right alongside the biggest pop hits of the year. Of course, there was also its infamous role in the series finale of the Sopranos. Plus, I bet that you’ve got your own dancefloor story about the song coming over the speakers and sending the entire place into a tizzy.
Now, in most cases, retro movements comes with a healthy dose of irony and a strong element of roleplay – hey look, we’re doing what our parents did! – but the adoption of “Don’t Stop Believing” as a millennial generation anthem is shockingly sincere. For the longest time, this struck me as bizarre, largely because in the musical criticism community there’s a special place in hell for bands like Journey. They’re the bloated behemoths of conformity that punk music rendered irrelevant, the AOR (adult-oriented radio) villains in the mainstream/alternative divide of the 1980s. The guitars are glossy, the vocals hyperbolic, and the drum beats expertly calculated. As long as I’ve been following music, Journey has been part of the problem.
But the band has disappeared from the mainstream consciousness just long enough that this burden of history has been lifted. Even more importantly, though, is that the era of irony is over. Its replacement is the era of self-awareness, which is not about enjoying something for its lame qualities but recognizing their existence and enjoying it anyways. It’s an era where Justin Timberlake and Kelly Clarkson can reasonably sit in one’s record collection alongside Radiohead and Arcade Fire, where trash television like America’s Next Top Model can be followed with episodes of The Wire or Lost.
And it’s an era where “Don’t Stop Believing’s” lesser qualities – its heart-on-sleeve platitudes, its faux-Springsteenian working class sentiments, its melodramatic guitar solos – can become assets instead of liabilities. The song remains the same as it ever was, but it doesn’t quite sound like it used to, not when played through an iPod into the ears of a new audience hungry for those same platitudes, even if they know that they’re largely bullshit. Though the band was abandoned by the baby boom to remain in the dustbin of history, the millenials have discovered Journey on their own terms.
And they want to believe.