Hold On To That Feeling: ‘Glee’ and Don’t Stop Believin’ (Part Two)

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele, front) sings Don’t Stop Believin’ for her Funny Girl audition. Glee, 4×19 (2013). Fox.

By Rachel Malstrom | 7th of Feburary 2022

Ryan Murphy, one of the show’s creators, writers, and often director, said in an interview with Variety that Glee was meant to be pure escapism, different from the crime shows and science fiction shows dominating the narrative television slots of the time. However, since Glee is a dramedy, meant to encourage repeat viewership through love triangle drama and feuding characters, sometimes the escapism takes a backseat to the plot. Furthermore, Glee, at the time of airing, was known for being cutting edge, willing to confront issues facing teenagers such as gun violence, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders. As the series went on, the show eventually would add more wild and unrealistic moments of escapism that rarely worked. Nevertheless, the show would often opt to return to its “Don’t Stop Believin’” roots. In what could have been seen as a cheap ploy to recreate the success of the pilot, the song became its own character, important to the members of the New Directions, and to the audience. In what we’ll see in Part Two of my analysis of the show, the song’s use encapsulates every person’s hopes, dreams, and, in a sense, their fears. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ reminds us that we are all chasing happiness and belonging, and that acknowledgement allows the viewer to escape into a world where they feel like they are a part of something special, and thus are special themselves.

The Rhodes Not Taken (1×05): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Quinn’s Version)

Fast forward from the Pilot to episode five of the first season, and Rachel, the so-called star of the New Directions, has quit the glee club to join the school’s production of Cabaret, because she was feeling underappreciated in the club. Quinn (Dianna Agron), Finn’s cheerleader girlfriend and new glee club member, has discovered she is pregnant. But, more importantly, with Rachel gone, she is given Rachel’s solo parts in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Unhappy in her lead role in Cabaret, hearing of someone else taking her part in the song that has come to represent happiness in the show, the very essence of glee, makes Rachel feel even more lost. The show could have chosen to have Finn dueting with Quinn using any song to signify what Rachel is missing out on, but it would not have captured her joylessness the same.

Joining the school play with a teacher who is not supportive and does not believe in her like Mr. Schue always has does not inspire the kind of greatness she thought she would achieve branching out on her own. She might have believed being the star would provide her with the something special she has been yearning for, but seeing as Glee does not introduce the rest of the cast of Cabaret it is clear that doing something solo is all too similar to performing alone in one’s bedroom mirror with a hairbrush microphone. As much as she tries to remedy her sadness by attempting to recruit Finn over to the musical, she is unable to find her sense of belonging within the confines of Sandy’s strict and lonely stage production. 

The New Directions also feel helpless in their venture to win sectionals without their star vocalist, but it is Rachel who must find her way back to them in the end, and hearing that they meant to perform “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the song that made them feel like a team, without her is the kick to the gut she needs to make her realize that success does not always lead to happiness. 

Journey to Regionals (1×22): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Regionals Version)

Season one ends with the all-important Regionals. All feels hopeless because Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the school’s cheer coach that seems to want to erase all happiness from the school by eradicating the glee club, is one of the judges. It has already been established that the New Directions have to win Regionals or the club is done for, and Mr. Schue goes to Emma for some guidance as he feels particularly devastated by the group’s chances. Emma reminds him of the video from his Show Choir Nationals, and how he said it was the happiest moment of his life. She tells him, “that feeling is way more important than winning and losing.” Later, as Mr. Schue drives in his car, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ starts playing on the radio. “Hold on to that feeling,” the song demands again, and Mr. Schue has to pull over so he can cry by the side of the road. In the next glee rehearsal, Mr. Schue reveals to the New Directions when he was ready to give up all joy to become an accountant, how it was their performance of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ that brought him back. As a result, he announces an all-Journey setlist at Regionals, urging the club to embrace the fun of getting there, rather than worry about the results. 

At Regionals, by the time the New Directions get to the “Don’t Stop Believin’” part of their medley, the crowd is up and clapping along. Josh Groban, one of the celebrity judges, says that the New Directions have heart, and even Sue can’t help but recognize the team’s joyous performance. Despite all of the other judges placing New Directions in the losing spot, Sue places them at number one, because she too is won over by the power of Journey.

This is the first time the show uses the song to remind the audience of its call to happiness. Even when Glee gets too serious with its plots of teen pregnancy, homophobia, and crumbling marriage, which is often the challenge of the teen dramedy, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ brings the audience back into its embrace. While some may connect to the show’s heavier themes on a personal and emotional level, the loneliness and the search for meaningful experiences present in the song is something everyone can relate to — even Sue Sylvester herself. It’s a song about longing. And it is this same longing that inspired McKinley High students to join the New Directions, the same longing that inspired the show’s cult following.

Sweet Dreams (4×19): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Rachel’s Version)

In the season four episode, “Sweet Dreams,” Rachel, now living in New York, has an audition for a revival of Funny Girl on Broadway, which has been her dream her whole life. After being advised not to sing a song from the show, she labors over what to sing for her audition. Rachel ultimately decides to audition with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ after Finn advises Rachel to choose a song that takes her back to her passion for performing. During her performance, the original glee club members appear onstage, performing with her. Looking younger than they have in so long, they wear their iconic red shirt and blue jean combo, providing backing vocals (in spirit, they aren’t actually auditioning with her). As Rachel follows along to the original choreography, she recaptures the magic of the club’s first performance of the song as she stands on the precipice of what she has been dreaming of her entire life. She looks happy and confident in her performance, because succeeding here is not an accomplishment she was ever going to achieve on her own. It is a win she shares with the ones who have been dreaming with her. After the performance, one of Funny Girl’s producers says, “something happened to you in the middle of that song,” and asks what it was. Rachel reveals that it was the memory of her friends performing alongside her, and that she would not be the performer — or woman — she is today without them. The show understands that it is at its most magical and special during a performance of “Don’t Stop Believin,’’ and for the viewer, that song taps into the joy that had them hooked on the show to begin with. The moment not only reminds the audience of how far these characters have come, but also of how far we’ve come as the audience. If you watched the show live, four years have passed by this point, and maybe we had seen our own dreams come and go, or met the people who helped shape who we have become. The song is everyone’s favorite guest star: you half expect a live studio audience to cheer whenever the song begins.

New Directions (5×13): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Glee Cast Season 5 Version)

Glee’s two part special, “100” (5×12) and “New Directions” (5×13), feels more like a finale than any other season finale the show has to offer. Sue has finally demolished the glee club, and now all of the graduated members and current members of the club come to bid the New Directions farewell. Amongst all the reminiscing, the most important goodbye comes from a video the New Directions made where they all talk about the impact Mr. Schue has had on their lives for Schuster and Emma’s unborn son. And as they say goodbye to the club’s director, they sing the song that started it all. In what would become the final performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the show, each glee club member, old and new, join each other on stage. Although they are not wearing their coordinating red shirts or Regionals costumes, they look more like a team singing “Don’t Stop Believin’” on that auditorium stage than they ever do singing any other number.

Since the song has become so synonymous with the New Directions as a whole, this performance is the perfect acknowledgement of the members who have come and gone. It is an acknowledgement of the way that club, and this song in particular, has touched so many people, not just the characters but also the people watching on a weekly basis. 100 episodes of any show comes out to be a pretty mixed bag, but “Don’t Stop Believin’” remains the thread that keeps the show consistently inconsistent. More shows need some kind of symbol that reminds the audience why they started watching to begin with. With every ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ the show offers a hand to hold and anchor for the show’s ambitions. It never promised to offer solutions to all of the world’s problems, despite its obsession with acknowledging them. 

Looking back on the now completed series, it doesn’t feel like “Don’t Stop Believin’” got the goodbye it deserved. It gets left behind in this last New Directions performance of the song in season 5. When the characters bid their final goodbye at the end of season 6, a season that decided to tear down all of the show’s characters and relationships just to have to sloppily build them back up in 13 episodes, they sing OneRepublic’s “I Lived” which, while a decent song with lyrics that are meant to emphasize how far everyone has come, it fails to capture the show’s spirit. “Don’t Stop Believin’” hooked fans because it is about longing for more, something that everyone relates to. “I Lived,” however, feels more like a brag, it’s about looking back and hoping that everyone lives life to the fullest, implying that the Glee characters have done that, and the audience members likely still feel the same longing on display in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Therefore, the show’s final song, its final bow, is fully incapable of providing the same kind of escapism, and it completely misses the point. “Don’t Stop Believin’” just offers one piece of advice, “hold on to that feeling.” Find a little glee, and maybe watch the next episode anyway, and that journey (no pun intended) was really what made the show so attractive to begin with.

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.

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 | January 3, 2022

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.