The Meaning of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”

Journey live in 1983. Photo by Ebet Roberts / Getty Images.

Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” is a massive hit. Released in 1981 as the second single from Journey’s seventh studio album, Escape, the song was not a massive hit upon its release, only peaking at 62 on the charts in the UK.

Today, though, “Don’t Stop Believin'” can be heard at just about every wedding, high school dance, and Saturday night college bar you can think of. The popularity of “Don’t Stop Believin'” in modern times started in 2007, when the song was used in the iconic final scene of The Sopranos. The wave of popularity continued a few years later when the show Glee included a cover version of it in 2010, sending it all the way to number 6 on the Top 40 charts in America.

The song was written in collaboration between Journey’s Jonathan Cain, Steve Perry and Neal Schon. Cain had only just joined Journey in 1980 after ending a stint with The Babys, but he was already contributing lyrics to what would become one of the most popular rock songs of all time. Cain also wrote “Open Arms”, which was the biggest song on Escape at the time of its release.

Cain has spoken on the meaning of the song’s namesake, “Don’t Stop Believin”, remembering something his father had said to him when he was just starting out in the music industry. Cain had been living on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, struggling to make ends meet, and his father often told him “Don’t stop believing or you’re done, dude.” These words stuck with him and later paid his bills many times over, so I guess he’s glad that he took his father’s advice.

Jonathan Cain of Journey in the 80s.

In fact, another iconic lyric from “Don’t Stop Believin'” comes from Cain’s time living on Sunset Boulevard, with the line “Strangers, waitin’ / Up and down the boulevard” being a reference to the times he would look out his apartment window and watch the bustle of people on the sidewalks below.

According to a 2018 interview that Cain did with The Tennesean, he went to to band with the iconic line “Don’t stop believin, hold on to that feeling,” with the vague idea that Steve Perry would want to sing it. Perry loved it and the band went on to improvise and jam until they had dialed in a workable version of the song.

The song is structured in a way that makes the whole thing catchy, grabbing you right from the start with the opening line that rings in the ears of many hungover people: “Just a small town girl, living in a lonely w-o-herld”. So catchy that you might not have even noticed that the song’s chorus doesn’t actually kick in until the final minute of the song.

Journey managed to craft a song that builds up so perfectly, the whole thing manages to feel like one big chorus, or at least the buildup to that satisfying “Don’t stop belivin” that you get to shout at the end.

Another lyric from “Don’t Stop Believin'” that you’ve probably belted out a million times without even thinking about (unless you’re from Detroit) is the line from the first verse, “Just a city boy / Born and raised in South Detroit.”

If you pull up a map of Detroit, and look for an area that might be South Detroit, you’ll find yourself right in Tecumsah, Ontario. Perry admitted in 2012 that the geographic local was made up out of thin air while trying to find the right words for the lyric:

I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit. I fell in love with the line. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve learned that there is no South Detroit. But it doesn’t matter.”

Steve Perry, 2012

It truly doesn’t matter for the sake of the song that South Detroit doesn’t actually exist, nor that the members of Journey were all from San Francisco and had never lived in Detroit. Rumor has it only a handful of locals turn their noses up when this song comes on at the bar. Detroit Red Wings fans, not surprisingly, embrace the humor in the “South Detroit” lyric by shouting it out extra loud when “Don’t Stop Believin'” is played at their games.

In case you feel like hearing it again, you can listen to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” below.

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One thought on “The Meaning of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”

  • June 13, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    South Detroit DOES exist, trust that. It’s just not on a map. Ask any Detroit native, yes there is a South Detroit!

    Reply

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