As a longtime Journey fan, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the band’s rousing “Don’t Stop Believin’” play out over the last shot of “The Sopranos” finale. But that surprise quickly turned to frustration as the Web started filling up with anti-Journey sentiment in response to the use of the song.
The bloggers’ antipathy toward Journey isn’t exactly unexpected, though. Critical distaste for the band goes back a long way. Rolling Stone’s two-star review of the band’s 1981 breakthrough “Escape” — featuring “Don’t Stop Believin’” — calls the album a “triumph of professionalism, a veritable march of the well-versed schmaltz-stirrers.” The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote the following about 1983′s 6 million-selling “Frontiers”: “Just a reminder, for all who believe the jig is really up this time, of how much worse things might be: this top 10 album could be outselling ‘Pyromania,’ or ‘Flashdance,’ or even ‘Thriller.’” Even a positive customer review on Amazon.com slaps the dreaded “corporate rock” label on the band.
I sort of don’t get why Journey are typically derided as slick and soulless. The idea that a heavily produced sound is necessarily lacking in emotion is plainly false. The sonic atmosphere of “Abbey Road” is just as glossy and seamless as anything Journey ever recorded; likewise Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” And why, exactly, is a punk-rock-style decision to just plug in and play any less calculated or any more authentic than Journey’s choice to overdub extensively and give the music a synthesized sheen?
Journey were actually making punchy pop-rock designed to get across quickly. In a weird way, it wasn’t that different from punk. Consider this: On the six studio albums Journey put out during their peak years of 1978-86, the band recorded only seven songs longer than five minutes. On just three albums before the band’s best-known lead singer Steve Perry joined, 12 songs stretched past the same mark. Journey consciously scaled back, determined to pack as much punch into each single as possible. Hence, the grand, glowing sound of their music, thick with guitars, booming drums, Perry’s soaring, multitracked vocals and hook after hook. Nothing is extraneous. In their cool efficiency and pop concision, Journey were a lot closer to the Ramones than they were to Led Zeppelin.
Similarly, the idea that Journey’s music is marred by the virtuosity of Perry’s insanely flexible and wide-ranging voice and guitarist Neil Schon’s flashy technique is another boring bit of punk-rock dogma. Technical ability is not inherently inimical to emotion. If it were, jazz and classical music would have to be dismissed outright. And as with the band’s lushly produced sound, Journey’s technical facility was always in the service of the song. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a case in point: Schon’s tricky rapid-fire picking at the 51-second mark beautifully sets the stage for the rest of the song, his muted sound mimicking the stifled emotions of the lyric’s protagonists. Later, his eight-bar solo is a marvel of melodic precision, leading perfectly into the chorus that follows. Perry’s rousing vocal performance works much the same way. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is about desperate hope — “living just to find emotion.” Accordingly, the Olympian high notes that Perry affixes to the end of the line “Hiding somewhere in the night” are a suitably inspiring match for the song’s message of hopeful perseverance.
The carping of persnickety “Sopranos” viewers aside, the recent attention has been good for Journey (who, minus Perry, still regularly tour). As of this morning, the band’s greatest hits collection was holding down the No. 53 spot on Amazon.com’s album sales rankings; “Don’t Stop Believin’” was at No. 22 on iTunes. These listeners are learning what millions of listeners unconcerned with what’s hip have known for years: Journey’s a band to believe in.
– David Marchese