Opening Yourself Up to Joy: ‘Glee’ and Don’t Stop Believin’ (Part One)

Kurt (Chris Colfer), Rachel (Lea Michele), Mercedes (Amber Riley), Finn (Cory Montieth) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) performing ‘Don’t Stop Believin” for the first time on Glee, 2009. FOX.

By Rachel Malstrom | December 6, 2021

Look, I am gonna make a bold claim here, but not one movie or show has changed a group of people’s relationship with a song the way Glee reclaimed and reintroduced Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to my generation. As New Direction members — the show’s somewhat eponymous glee club — performed the song a total of six times during its six season run, it truly is the throughline of the entire series. The original Glee cover of the song debuted at number four on the Billboard Top 100, and has been a mainstay on the radio ever since. One of my best friends (who is known for hating musicals) told me how her gleek friends in high school would not let her sing along to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ because, unlike them, “she didn’t watch Glee.” For better or worse, self-proclaimed ‘Gleeks’ claimed the rock anthem for themselves, redesignating a classic as a show choir staple. There is a lot to be said for Glee’s sudden rise to pop culture fame and its subsequent steep decline in critical and audience engagement as the show progressed. However, I would argue that the best way to really understand the show’s charm and unlikely heart is through its various performances of ‘Don’t Stop Believin.’’ 

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The show has many central themes and a lot of grand intentions: It preaches the specialness of being a part of something, the importance of individuality, and the necessity of dreaming big. However, the most important theme the show has to offer also feels like a plea. In the first few moments of the Pilot, the camera pans over a plaque of McKinley High School’s past Show Choir director, Lillian Adler. On the plaque there is an inscription of a quote from said instructor, which reads, “By its very definition, Glee is about opening oneself up to joy.” Glee, when at its best, works as a guide to doing just that. It is a show with its own profound thesis statement, one that is inherent in this plaque, in the very title of the show, “Glee,” and which is never more evident than in the song ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ So much so that the song becomes the series’ tentpole, one that the writers always come back to in order to remind the viewer of its gleeful intention. 

Glee, 1×01 (2009). FOX.

Pilot: Don’t Stop Believin’ (Glee Cast Version)

There is a tone established in the Pilot that is never properly recreated by the series ever again. It leans into the show’s satirical premise in a more creative way, and yet the characters ironically feel their most genuine and realized. A lot of the charm comes from its simpleness, void of the flash and glitz of its later musical numbers. However, what is truly great about the Pilot is that it introduces a group of characters that, like the audience, are looking to find value in their lives, and it is capable of communicating these fleeting moments of sublime being that we universally seek through its first performance of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ 

In the show’s first moments, as a group of football players toss the school’s resident gay, Kurt (Chris Colfer), into an overflowing dumpster, it is evident that McKinley High School is a place devoid of joy. The pilot episode introduces a lot of unhappy people: unfulfilled popular kids, unfulfilled unpopular kids, discontented Spanish teacher, Will “Mr. Schue” Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who is slugging through an unhappy marriage, and guidance counselor, Emma Pilsbury (Jayma Mays), who is pining for him and dealing with her O.C.D as well. 

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) needing a little Glee in their lives. FOX.

Slowly, hoping to provide a trajectory towards happiness in a school filled with kids with absolutely no direction, Mr. Schue gets the glee club started, and aptly calls it the New Directions. Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) joins the Glee club without question. She’s a talented overachiever with the goal of making something of herself. However, the constant online bullying from her peers, especially the school’s elite cheerleaders known as Cheerios, is starting to make her impatient. As much as Rachel claims her dream is to be the best, she also compulsively wants to be valued by others. Rachel compares herself to a shining star, but stars exist out in space isolated, and as much as she wishes she could exist in such a vacuum she cannot. “Being a part of something special makes you special, right?” She says to Mr. Schue in the school bleachers. She’s nearly begging him to confirm that this is the case, and the audience wants to believe it, too. We want to believe that not only will being a part of something will make us special, but it will make us feel less alone, too.

Mr. Schue recruits Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) from the football team by hiding drugs in his locker and then punishing him by making him either join the New Directions or attend detention. Finn, obviously, chooses glee club over the latter. In voiceover and flashback, Finn tells the audience about the first time he “really heard music.” It was when his single mother would hire Darren, a landscaper, and engage in a fling with him. Finn says that he made his mom really happy and he was also cool about letting little boy Finn hang around. As his mom relaxes in a lawn chair, Finn and Darren sing along to Journey’s ‘Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin.’’ Finn says in voiceover, “Man, [the music] set my soul on fire.” This out-of-body musical experience, the feeling of acceptance, is exactly the kind of mission Glee is out to capture. It might have taken a fake drug scandal to get Finn on board, but bringing music back into Finn’s life is definitely a welcome change. 

This gift in disguise comes with a price when, of course, Finn is met with kickback from his teammates for joining the club of misfits. When he is berated for joining the club, and refusing to bully fellow glee member, Artie (Kevin McHale), Finn insists that that everyone in their sorry town of Lima, Ohio, is a loser: directionless. He states that he might be a loser like everyone else but he is not going to quit the one thing that has “made [him] happy from the first time in [his] sorry life.” Finn, being one of the most popular guys in school, can appear outwardly as the happiest student, but it wasn’t until glee that he finally finds recognizable joy, and he starts to embrace that happiness. As he wheels Artie away, Finn sees Darren working on the football field singing along to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’. Finn smiles as the song infects him with the energy and love of music he felt in his youth. It’s a kind of sign that Finn is moving in the right direction, on the trajectory to feel proud of oneself, to be the kind of guy he can face in the mirror.

Meanwhile, Mr. Schue is married to his high school sweetheart, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig). He tells Emma that it was love-at-first-sight for him, that Terri “used to be filled with so much joy.” Now she craves a different kind of life, a life that could be afforded if Mr. Schue was to quit his passion of teaching and take up an accounting career. When he is told that Terri is pregnant, he chooses accounting, even though it means losing a job he is passionate about. Emma tries to sway him by showing him a video of his own winning Show Choir Nationals performance from 1993. Emma comments that Mr. Schue is the happiest she has ever seen him in that video. 

Glee’s first performance of Don’t Stop Believin’ sets up the show’s thesis statement: opening yourself up to joy.

Following Emma’s attempt to call Mr. Schue back towards happiness, only one thing is capable of bringing him back to the light, and that’s the glee club singing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ If you think of Glee, you think of this performance. The New Directions in their infancy, wearing red shirts, blue jeans, and black Converse as they sing Journey’s hit in the empty school auditorium. Mr. Schue hears them singing from the hallway after resigning from his position at the school, but is unable to resist the siren call and enters the auditorium. The peppy tune and simple dance moves has Mr. Schue tearing up in the back of the auditorium. 

‘Don’t Stop Believin’s’ introduction to the Glee canon is just about as essential as introducing the three characters primarily introduced in the pilot, Rachel, Finn, and Mr. Schue. The song represents a happiness that can be summed up by the three desires of these characters: Rachel’s desire to be a part of something special; Finn’s desire to be someone he can be proud of; and Mr. Schue’s desire to not give up on the things he loves. In an episode full of dry satire, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ is nothing but genuine. “Hold on to that feeling,” the song demands, that feeling of bountiful joy, that feeling of glee, so Mr. Schue sticks around, and so does the audience, because we could all use a little more glee.


Rachel Malstrom is a writer from Virginia. She graduated with a B.A. in Film and Television Studies from The University of Vermont and prides herself on having seen every Tom Cruise movie. You can follow her on Twitter @teamboby.