Gus, my five year old, just discovered a deep, deep love for 80’s supergroup Journey. It all started when my wife Taya saw the new Jim Carrey movie, “Yes Man” – a passable comedy that opened with Journey’s made for arenas classic “Separate Ways”. After the movie, Taya downloaded Journey’s Greatest Hits and for better or worse, it’s become the soundtrack to our lives for the last couple of weeks.
Gus’s enthusiasm for Journey is a little unsettling to me – especially when he camps out in front of the computer to watch the video for “Separate Ways” 10 times in a row on youtube before we have to cut him off. I don’t know what to make of it. A part of me is embarrassed or wonders where I went wrong as his father since Journey’s not even one of the cool 80’s bands. At the tender age of 5, these are the formative years, you know? Why couldn’t he be into the more subversive 80’s groups like The Clash, U2, or even Duran Duran (who are cool for how kitsch they are)? Instead, he walks around the house humming that insanely catchy synth intro to “Separate Ways”. Na na na na na na na na….
And yet I’m probably being too critical of Journey. And though I’d like to blame Taya for Gus’s new found obsession, the truth is that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. You see, it just so happens that the first record I bought with my own money was Frontiers by Journey. Why? Because as a 5th grader I saw “Separate Ways” on Friday Night Videos and it rocked my world. Whether it was the girl in the leather mini-skirt or the awesome air guitar playing, I only knew that I had to have that record.
I always loved music, ever since I was a little boy, but I shunned pop music in favor of classical (with the exception of a little Simon & Garfunkel every now and again). When my cousins would come to visit, they would make me listen to Rick Springfield, Olivia Newton John, and REO Speedwagon, but even then, and even though I grew up on the road with my mom’s bar band that played popular music, I stuck to my guns and listened almost exclusively to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and occasionally some John Williams (the Star Wars soundtrack.)
And even though “Jesse’s Girl” was really cool (and even though Olivia Newton John was really hot), it wasn’t until I heard Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” that I found a pop song I cared about in earnest. I remember asking for Glass Houses, and it became the first pop record I ever owned, followed by Springfield’s Working Class Dog. After wearing these out, I decided to stop waiting around for other people to buy me records and started converting all my lawn-mowing money into vinyl. It was the closest thing to a drug habit I’d ever experience. I was addicted to music, and it has proved to be one of my most enduring passions.
As I mentioned, the first record I bought with my own money was Frontiers by Journey. It was followed by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Madonna’s self-titled record, and Wham’s Make It Big. Inauspicious beginnings I know… But it wasn’t long before my musical tastes began to evolve and expanded to artier fare like Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, Peter Gabriel, and eventually U2. Later I would lose my heart to Christian artists like Charlie Peacock, Rich Mullins, and my favorites: Pierce Pettis and Mark Heard.
But it all started with watching Journey – who was always kind of 70’s in their 80’s-ness – play air guitar in their “Separate Ways” video.
I just finished my new record, Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue, and as I’m getting back the first rounds of mixes, I find myself wondering what people are going to think of it. I feel like it’s my most ambitious record I’ve ever made – I’ve never worked harder on a group of songs. It’s also my most pop record (bear in mind that my version of pop is still pretty folksy to most people). This project was a focused effort to make a pop record that would work at Christian radio but that didn’t pander and still felt true and compelling (to me at least). I, for one, am thrilled with the way it turned out.
And yet I know that a lot of people hear the words “pop music”, “radio”, and especially “Christian radio” and start sharpening their knives – often with good reason. Pop music has fallen into disrepute and is judged as contemptibly shallow and trite by a lot of the music lovers I hang with, including myself – a self proclaimed cultured despiser of most things popular.
But contrary to what some people might think, a smart and catchy pop song is the hardest kind to write. Bono calls these kinds of songs the “evolutionary peak of the species,” and as a songwriter, I found the task of writing accessible 3 minute pop songs with depth and mystery to be an invigorating challenge – much harder for me, in fact, than writing introspective and confessional singer/songwriter songs.
And yet I’ll admit I have some insecurities that some people might be dismissive of them on the basis that they are pop songs. But that’s only because I’m all too aware of how ungenerous I myself have been in pronouncing my invectives against pop music over the years. Nobody wants to get stung by their own barbs…
I suspect I’ve been so critical of pop music because I often take myself too seriously and because in some way I, like most of us, have come to despise or at least be suspicious of my humble beginnings. Case in point: early in our marriage if Taya and I would go out to eat for a special occasion, I’d often take her to Applebees. But now that we’ve discovered finer dining experiences, I’m embarrassed that I ever thought of Applebees as the kind of place to take my wife for a special occasion. So of course now I hate Applebees, not because there’s anything wrong with the place but more because it stands for something in my past that embarrasses me now.
In a way it’s kind of like where Paul says “when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” And then in Hebrews: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature…”
In my zeal to be sophisticated and mature in all things, I pursue solid food with gusto – and savor it! However, in my insecurity and eagerness to shed my “infancy”, I have come to not only reject milk, but hold it in contempt. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with milk – it does the body good, right? But my insecurity registers milk as a threat since it represents an old self that I’m always so desperately trying to disavow. The truth is, the more mature I am and established I become in my own sense of identity, the more I can appreciate a nice glass of milk with my steak from time to time – especially if mashed potatoes are in the mix. The older I get, the less things there are to hate.
In other words – when it comes to music – Journey is becoming less and less a threat to my identity as a cultured and refined music lover. In fact, hearing those classic songs now I can even appreciate their power to capture my attention and make me a music fan as a 5th grader – with those soaring melodies, epic themes, and big hooks! They were the seeds that have grown into a hearty fruit bearing tree. In a way, as I trace it back to it’s source, I suppose I owe my love of albums by Damien Rice, Arcade Fire, Tom Waits and the like to the one that started it all: Journey’s Frontiers.
My musical tastes are much different than they were when I bought my first Journey record, but today I’ve decided to lift the proverbial glass in a toast to “Separate Ways” and every other cheesy 80’s pop anthem that helped me discover my love for music – they may not have been particularly nutritious or filling, but they brought me to a table where, for all these years thence, I have feasted on some of the finest delicacies I’ve been graced to enjoy. Thank you Steve Perry and company, my life is sweeter because of you, though we touched and went our separate ways.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".