Talking Satellites: Rickie Lee Jones, “Satellites” (1989)

Often a great hook is placed right in the middle of your path so you can’t miss it. But if you happen to find an unexpected hook off to the side, under a bush, after squinting at it for a while, you may come to cherish it all the more.

The unmissable great hook in Rickie Lee Jones’ “Satellites” is the isolated word “satellite.” It’s sung in such a weird way—a quick outburst, shooting out of view (was that Sputnik?)—that you might never guess the word without the context. Anyway, it’s beautiful, airy, girdled in mischievous sax lines.

My favorite hook in the song, though, is another word that is equally hard to resolve, in early listenings, but becomes the perfect earthly counterpoint to “satellite” once understood, and that is “languages” in what I’ll call Chorus part A:

So you keep talking in many languages
Telling us the way you feel
Don’t stop confiding in the road you’re on
Don’t quit, you’re walking Satellites

A pleasantly chewy word, “languages,” made more so by the emphasis its second and third syllables get from the melody. But the chorus rocks just strong enough (a snare drum dropping in to help) that we don’t get stuck in those syllables, we track on through them like a Jeep getting the better of mud. It’s important that we not get stuck since the song is dedicated to the mental freedom of “walking satellites” over everything that hems us in; but it’s also important that we feel the dangers of embodied life along with the physical joy of navigating through it by the mouth-and-tongue articulation of satellite-thoughts in real language . . . or make that many languages we can try to master.

The language of Rickie Lee Jones is a topic to be studied, worth a master’s thesis at least (“Talking Satellites” would make a fine title). She blurs words spectacularly, but in such different ways: how does she cross from the hipster jive of “Danny’s All-Star Joint” into the mystical lyricism of “Satellites”? The first style is infinitely cool, dancing out of reach, while the other is infinitely warm and embracing. This singer, we’ve learned, is always charged with both possibilities.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Talking Satellites: Rickie Lee Jones, “Satellites” (1989)

  1. PATRICIA WESLEY-GRIFFIN says:

    I love Rickie Lee Jones. Always loved this song. I remember and am trying to find her recording “Satellites” on TV with Patti Austin, Emmylou Harris, and Reba McEntire singing backup. It was the most soulful, gripping performance. It was something to SEE and HEAR. Not sure if it was Sat. Night Live, Late Night Show, SMH. It could’ve been 1989 or early 90’s. Wish I could find that performance. Have tried to pull it up on YouTube . . . googled it… no luck.

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