Drawing inspiration from a Rock song from the 1980’s may seem too far fetched for the year 2020. However, in these dark and bleak times under the global Coronavirus pandemic, the American rock band’s hit track “Don’t Stop Believin'” could be the best medicine. Because, well, don’t stop believing!
“Don’t Stop Believin'” is the second single from Journey’s seventh studio album ‘Escape’ released in 1981. Although the song only reached #9 on Billboard Hot 100 and #62 in the UK Singles chart, the track became a timeless classic, making it a ‘must-have’ in rock concerts. However, the song performed extremely well when it was cataloged on iTunes in 2008 and years following that. By 2013, the song has sold over 7 million copies as per RIAA.
“Don’t Stop Believin'” is a take on humans and their interactions in the societies. While highlighting the monotonous and crushing nature of everyday life, the song tries to inject a message of positivity and hope among the listeners.
Listen to “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey
“Don’t Stop Believin'” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
The song kicks off with the first verse hinting about the commonality of fates of most people roaming this world. You could be a small-town girl or a big-city boy, but you would walk the same steps in life in a more or less common nature and pace.
The lyric “took the midnight train goin’ anywhere” implies that we all take a journey in our lives. But do we always know where we are going or where we would eventually end up? Most likely not. Hence, the ‘midnight train’ represents the uncertainty and danger of the life we live and every step we take in it. It could take us ‘anywhere.’
Lead vocalist of Journey, Steve Perry talked about the reference to ‘South Detroit’ in the song in an interview with Vulture magazine; “I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit. The syntax just sounded right. 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.” In fact, the south of Detroit lies the city of Windsor, belonging to Canada.
Watch Journey Perform “Don’t Stop Believin'” Live in Houston
Verse one of “Don’t Stop Believin'” is immediately followed by the second verse. In these lyrics, Journey further elaborates on the monotonous nature of life: much like a train ride. “A singer in a smoky room” may be a reference to the singer himself. A smoky room is yet another inference to the bleak future.
The lyric “For a smile, they can share the night” might be one of the most depressing thoughts ever existed in a song. This line refers to the social constitution of marriage, where two people would give up their own freedom and independence in exchange for a ‘smile.’ A ‘smile’ is not exactly the most luxurious benefit for a human being. If the lyrics referred to ‘happiness’ in place of a smile, the story would be entirely different. However, we seem to sacrifice a lot in the name of wearing a smiling face mask to face society.
And it goes on and on, because that is the social convention now…
Steve Perry talked about the inspiration behind the pre-chorus in an interview with Klos Radio; “I was on the top floor of our hotel, looking down, downtown right across from Cobo Arena back at the time. And I’m looking down and the lights were lighting up the entire streets from top-down and I thought it was fascinating to see the glow of the streets without the streetlights and the people milling around at two, three in the morning. And I thought it’s like streetlight people.”
The singer tries to understand the motives of these people walking aimlessly up and down the street at the thick of the night. He concludes that these people are trying to find and hold on to some kind of emotion to make them feel alive. It might be a midnight movie or a snack or just a walk down the road with your loved one, anything just to feel some kind of emotion rather than the rust of life.
And people love the night. One reason is that they cannot see their own shadows at night. Shadows represent their own demons from the past. The people cannot even see each other’s faces walking up and down the street. There is no judgment, just freedom in the unknown.
Another important word in the lyrics is “strangers” being used to describe all these people. They might be literal strangers to Steve Perry, looking down from his hotel room. But these people are strangers to the person next to them, and sometimes to themselves too.
The third verse of the song does little to motivate us to face this rusted society and its chains. People work hard daily, every day of their lives just to meet their ends. The hardness increases when one enters into holy matrimony: more responsibilities and more mouths to feed. So it is natural that everybody would want to gamble something in order to catch some break. But everybody can’t be winners. “Some will win, some will lose” are some of the wisest words ever spoken. In this game of life, it is not everybody who can make it. Someone has to lose for another to win. It is the nature of the cogwheel.
‘Singing blues’ songs might be a reference to the emotions the color is associated with. The color of blue stands of coldness, lack of emotion, depression, and monotonousness. Hence, the singer might be drawing contrasting features between the Rock genre and the Blues genre here.
And this run around the hamsterwheel never ends, until you rest in peace!
After three verses of hammering on the depressive nature of society, Journey delivers the actual punchline of the song: “don’t stop believin’.”
Journey wants all of us to remember that we are unique and special in our own ways. Never forget that and never let that feeling go. If you do let it go, the three verses of this song are most relevant to you. If you believe in that fighting nature to break out of the monotony of the world, the chorus of the song is most relevant for you.
Especially in an era of a significant spike in the erosion of mental health, songs such as “Don’t Stop Believin'” could provide some much-needed relief to people. If you are currently in need of support for your mental health, click here.
However, the listener has to be prepared to receive the actual message of the song, and not get lost in the minor branches of the full story.
So, don’t stop believin’ in yourself!
Let us hear what you think about this song and its meaning in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics and further meaning breakdown on Genius.