In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
For a brief moment on “Satisfied,” Richard Marx sounds a tiny bit like Karl Marx. Richard Marx starts off “Satisfied,” the first single from his sophomore album Repeat Offender, with a line about the pervasive drudgery of labor: “We work our bodies weary to stay alive/ There must be more to living than nine to five.” The man is right! And it would’ve been amazing if America’s favorite young be-mulleted soft rocker had then launched into a call to arms about seizing the means of production. Sadly, that’s not what “Satisfied” is. “Satisfied” is something else — or, at least, I think “Satisfied” is something else. Richard Marx himself doesn’t seem entirely sure.
In a 2012 Songfacts interview, Marx tried to explain what he was trying to say with “Satisfied”:
I remember the first thing I wrote lyrically was “I won’t give up until I’m satisfied,” and it sang so great. And then it was like, “OK, well, what the fuck is that about?” Because that can go so many different ways. And I actually think, in retrospect, that the lyric is vague. Maybe that’s good.
I look back at it and I go, you know, I was 25, I should have worked harder, I should have been more specific, but basically what I was trying to say was I was aware of the working man. Because I’d been on this long tour, and I would find myself in a diner or stopping at a gas station, and I was really aware that I was doing something for a living successfully that was so filled with joy. It certainly had its prices and compromises, but it’s a great gig. And I was aware of the working man around me doing shit that I know they would so rather not be doing.
And so it was sort of my homage to them — sort of a sense of if you hang in there, then maybe you get to the point where you’re satisfied with the work that you’ve done, and you can also just enjoy your life; it’s not all about punching a clock. When I look back on that lyric, it’s a little vague, but it sure sang well.
Richard Marx was not the only person writing lyrically vague pop songs in the late ’80s. Despite an opening line that almost seems like it’s about to say something, “Satisfied” in an empty calorie of a song. It says that Richard Marx won’t give up until he’s satisfied, which it not a particularly useful piece of information. But that chorus did sing pretty well.
Richard Marx was never a particularly convincing rocker. Marx first made it to #1 with the gloopy ballad “Hold On To The Nights,” the fourth and final single from his 1987 self-titled debut. All four of the singles from Marx’s album had made the top five, but the ballads outshined everything else. These days, at least when people aren’t talking about his contributions to the art of slightly-leftist Twitter snark, Marx is best-known as a soft-batch piano-man balladeer. But Marx at least tried to rock every once in a while. “Satisfied” is a long way away from being Marx’s biggest hit, but it’s the only one of his rockers that made it to #1.
Marx wrote the songs from his Repeat Offender LP while he was touring behind his debut. Marx had been a pop songwriter before breaking through as an artist, so this wasn’t a problem for him. His first album went triple platinum and established him as a major young star, but Marx didn’t stress much about the follow-up. He simply went back into the studio with co-producer David Cole and knocked out what he considered to be the 10 best songs he’d written since the first LP came out. In January of 1989, Marx married Cynthia Rhodes, an actor who’d been in Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, but he didn’t take much time off. Repeat Offender was out within a few months, and Rhodes sang backup on “Satisfied.”
“Satisfied” was the last song that Marx wrote for the LP. It’s a big, bright extremely generic studio-rocker. If “Satisfied” had been slightly smirkier, it could’ve been a Huey Lewis And The News track. If it had been slightly more chestily sincere, it could’ve been Bryan Adams. Instead, it’s a down-the-middle inspiration-rock type of thing. The song almost begs to soundtrack a teen-movie montage about a cool kid giving a makeover to a nerd. I hear Richard Marx sing that he won’t give up until he’s satisfied, and I immediately picture Christian Slater giving the thumbs down to all the outfits that John Cusack tries on. (This is not a real movie, but it should be a real movie.)
“Satisfied” has a vaguely funky guitar riff and some glassy keyboard sounds and a general sense of antic silliness. It’s also got a huge, bouncy chorus that Marx sells reasonably well. The song mostly works as an example of the kind of canned, flavorless studio-rock that big artists cranked out reliably in 1989. “Satisfied” features all the session musicians that you would expect it to feature: Boz Scaggs/Laura Branigan guitarist Michael Landau, bassist and future American Idol judge Randy Jackson, Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. (Paulinho da Costa played on so many of the songs that have been in this column.) Little Feat co-founder Bill Payne plays the Hammond B-3, which is pretty cool. You might not notice that organ work on first listen, but Payne does bring some energy to the track. Still, without that chorus, “Satisfied” would be a deeply sub-average example of this totally forgettable music. The chorus elevates it to average.
In 1989, people were evidently very into this particular flavor of blandness, and “Satisfied” raced up the Hot 100 with impressive speed. Marx released both “Satisfied” and the Repeat Offender album in April. The album didn’t sell its first million copies until after “Satisfied” had its run at #1, but the album was triple platinum by the end of the year.
Last year, Marx talked to Stereogum, and the way he talked about “Satisfied” was pretty interesting. Marx seems slightly embarrassed about “Satisfied,” but he also doesn’t want to bum out any fans who like the song, so he walks a delicate line between praising the song and burying it:
“Satisfied” is a really fun song for me to play live. If I listen to the record of it, which I maybe have a couple of times in the last couple of years, I can hear every minute of 1989 in it. But there’s parts of the production and the arrangement that I’m really still proud of. And it’s just fun. But I also hear the things about it that seemed dated. And “I wouldn’t have written that line” or whatever.
Marx is right about a couple of things here. “Satisfied” is dated, and it’s also fun. It’s perfectly likable and forgettable late-’80s radio-bait. Considering that this is a Richard Marx rock song, that’s about the best outcome I could’ve imagined. I like “Satisfied” significantly less than some of Marx’s ballads, but I also like it significantly more than “Hold On To The Nights.” About half of Repeat Offender is made up of similarly uptempo rock songs, and most of those songs gargle barf. “Satisfied,” though? “Satisfied” is OK.
The video for “Satisfied” doesn’t do much to push the song beyond “OK” status for me. That clip is mostly made up of scenes of working stiffs cutting loose photogenically. It’s also got Marx playing guitar and trying to make cool-guy rocker faces. Marx really does play guitar, but he is not remotely convincing doing either of those things in the video. His feathery mullet, however, is immaculate. We’ll see that mullet again soon. It won’t be long before Richard Marx appears in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: “Satisfied” is one of those hit songs that totally evaporates after its chart run is over, so I can’t really find any fun cultural flotsam related to the song. There are no memorable covers, no samples, no soundtrack appearances that I can find. (“Satisfied” is apparently in the 2006 Dane Cook/Jessica Simpson comedy Employee Of The Month? I don’t know, man.) I don’t even know whether it qualifies as a Bonus Beat, but this Richard Marx tweet is pretty good:
THE 10S: Neneh Cherry’s immortal, untouchable hard-blat club-rap snarl “Buffalo Stance,” a song that had a massive foundational impact on my conception of cool, peaked at #3 behind “Satisfied.” It makes noise and manhandles toys, and it’s a 10.