(March 27, 2024).  When Journey released their album Escape in 1981, Columbia Records issued four singles from it: “Who’s Crying Now,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms” and “Still They Ride,” in that order.

That one of those — “Don’t Stop Believin’” — has now been declared by a somewhat reputable source, Forbes Magazine, to be the “biggest song of all time” is a bit surreal for those of us who lived — and loved — “Don’t Stop Believin’” in its original lifetime.

We loved it back then, yes, but not above all others. Those of us of a certain age remember that “Don’t Stop Believin’” wasn’t even the first choice for a single from its album, or even the biggest hit from that album.

In fact, it wasn’t even the second biggest. 

The two biggest hits from Escape were the power ballad “Open Arms,” which spent six impressive weeks at No. 2 (behind J. Geils’ “Centerfold” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll”), and the mid-tempo pop/rock nugget “Who’s Crying Now,” the album’s lead-off single that topped out at No. 4 and was the band’s highest chart placement until “Open Arms” a few months later.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” ranked third as far as the Escape singles went — reaching a peak of No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1981. The charts didn’t always tell the whole story of a song’s success, but with all things being equal, it was a reasonably objective measure of the relative success of a band’s catalog, and which of their songs did better than others, particularly tunes from the same era.

A No. 9 peak for “Believin'” wasn’t bad by most standards, but that certainly wasn’t a predictor of what, decades later, would become one of the most recognizable recordings in pop music history, at least not using chart performance alone as an indication.

But “Don’t Stop Believin’,” with its signature shout-to-the-rafters vocal performance by the legendary Steve Perry with odd lyrical pairings of “streetlights” and “people,” has had multiple lives, thanks mostly to its synch with the dramatic final episode of The Sopranos in 2006 and, to a slightly lesser degree, its remake by the cast of the TV show Glee in 2009.

Written by Journey’s Neal Schon, Jonathan Cain and Perry, “Believin'” has since inspired sports teams to victory, soundtracked countless TikTok videos, become fodder for late-night TV spoofs, and is an encore staple at all Journey concerts — albeit without Perry doing the honors (that job now belongs to longtime replacement Arnel Pineda, who’s now been with the band longer than Perry was).

But, more importantly, the song has resonated with multiple new generations of fans and, in that sense, has become a timeless classic.  There’s likely not a person alive between the ages of eight and 80 who hasn’t heard the song at least once.

A good fraction of those people have likely also tried their hands at singing it — badly perhaps — but sang it nonetheless. Few other songs, whether from this century or any other, can make that kind of claim.

To wit, “Don’t Stop Believin'” is the most successful song from the 20th century during the digital era, having been streamed and downloaded more times than any other song recorded before 2000. It eclipses Mariah Carey’s 1994 evergreen “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and Queen’s 1975 epic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which are now likely the second- and third-most downloaded/streamed songs from the last millennium, using Recording Industry Association of America data as the metric.

It was the RIAA’s certification of that fact — “Don’t Stop Believin'” was updated to 18x platinum in January from its previous high of 5x platinum in 2013 — that prompted Forbes‘ bold claim about its “biggest song” status. The 18 million units that Journey’s ubiquitous hit has now “sold” tied the high set by Post Malone & Swae Lee (of Rae Sremmurd) whose 2018 single “Sunflower (Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse)” reached 18 million in May 2023.

The certification for “Don’t Stop Believin'” includes a combination of sales of the physical copies of its original 7” vinyl single (which weren’t enough to be certified gold its first time out), plus digital downloads from stores like iTunes — the song reached its first gold certification in 2005 when paid (legal) downloads from iTunes were becoming the biggest game in town for songs old and new.

This was a year before its reintroduction to a whole new audience via the Sopranos tie-in.

But the thing that likely propelled “Don’t Stop Believin'” to its new high-water mark is streaming, that convenient consumption element that curmudgeons from my era lament as one that gives an unfair advantage to today’s artists (like Drake, The Weekend, Post Malone, and, of course, Taylor Swift), especially as they repeatedly knock down old Billboard chart milestones achieved by artists we grew up loving (the Beatles, Michael, Elvis, Aretha, etc.).

Before Journey’s hit reached this upper echelon, 21st-century hits like the aforementioned “Sunflower” plus blockbuster singles by Lil Nas X, the Weeknd, and Ed Sheeran dominated recent diamond certifications.

In this case, however, streaming is actually benefitting one of our own.

“Don’t Stop Believin'” is from our era. Accepted as it may be today by Generations Y & Z, we Gen-Xers and Boomers owned it first.

It’s almost a bit of redemption that a song from 1981 could be the biggest hit of all time considering all the digital and streaming juggernauts that have come in the past decade or so, songs that have been the fodder of many social media proclamations by today’s fan armies who rarely acknowledge the apples-and-oranges comparisons of today’s accomplishments vs. those that predate 2010.

But to use RIAA certifications as the measure for determining the “biggest” song of all time is a flawed premise to begin with, or at least a dubious one, especially when considering that not every record company submitted its product to the RIAA for sales auditing, and even those that did didn’t always update the data.

For example, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” has long been heralded as the biggest-selling single of all time (recognized in the Guiness Book of World Records as such) with 50 million worldwide copies acknowledged by the publication (Forbes didn’t mention this in its Journey article, btw).

Nearly half of Crosby’s sales were reported to be in North America, yet the song does not own an RIAA certification (gold, platinum, diamond or otherwise).

Elton John’s tribute to the late Princess Diana of Wales, the 1997 re-recording of “Candle in the Wind” (backed with “Something in the Way You Look Tonight”), has reportedly sold more than 33 million worldwide copies (again, Forbes doesn’t reconcile this in its Journey proclamation). Rocket Records (John’s label) last submitted “Candle 1997” for RIAA certification in October 1997, less than a month after its release, when it was capped at 11x platinum (for U.S. sales).

Reported by some sources to be the biggest-selling single of the 1970s, George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” was never certified by the RIAA because T.K. Records was not a paying member of the Association. Similarly, Motown Records famously didn’t report record sales to the RIAA or allow them to audit the label’s books until 1981. Many Motown classics reportedly sold millions before they were retroactively (and only partially) certified by the RIAA beginning in the 1980s. By 1989, the RIAA had cut in half its sales thresholds for gold and platinum singles certifications.

But the ultimate flaw in using RIAA certifications as the gauge for the “biggest” recordings in history lies in the data’s fluidity.

Since Forbes made its assertion about “Don’t Stop Believin'” earlier this year, the RIAA has already updated its sales plateau for Malone’s “Sunflower,” the 2018 No. 1 smash that keeps budding new consumption numbers with each year. In February, that song was certified double-diamond — for 20 million units sold — once again catapulting it above Journey’s four-decade-old hit (no similar announcement by Forbes for “Sunflower,” btw).

It’s likely that those sales — or more accurately, that “Sunflower” consumption — occurred before Journey’s song reached the 18-million mark, which would have rendered any claims to “Don’t Stop Believin'” being the “biggest” record outdated before the news even hit the Internet.

But such headlines make good clickbait and sell newspapers. That’s especially so for a song like “Don’t Stop Believin,'” a 42-year-old, nostalgic favorite from a beloved American band with its heart wrenching messages of belief and uplift.

It also was cause for members of Journey to celebrate the milestone, with posts by Neal Schon and former frontman Perry commemorating the group’s accomplishment.

Neal Schon wrote this superlative-heavy post on X: “We now officially have the biggest song in the world ever in the history of music! Congratulations to all.”

And Perry, who hasn’t sung the song with the band since it began enjoying its second life, wrote on Instagram: “When this ‘Don’t Stop Believin”, ‘The Biggest Song of ALL Time’ article came out I was so emotionally stunned. To be part of such a moment as this made me reflect on my parents. By that, I mean, though I lost them both years ago, I was so happy for them because they are truly the reason this is happening.

He continued, “My dad was a singer and both of them were very musical. So, on behalf of my Mom and Dad, I thank every one of you for so many years of support. – Sincerely, Steve Perry.”

The song’s title and chorus themselves were inspired by a conversation between lyricist Jonathan Cain and his own father, who had inspired the longtime Journey-man to keep on believing when he was down and out in the 1970s (before he joined the group).

Wow, on second thought, who am I to rain on these guys’ parade?

You be the judge. Is “Don’t Stop Believin'” really the biggest song of all time in your view? If not, what is (and why)?


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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