I was living in Greece when George Michael’s Careless Whisper became a disco favourite. Greek friends would ask me, “What does it mean, ‘Careless Whisper’?” I never knew how to answer. It didn’t seem fair to the song to try.
In memorable songs, the ‘meaning’ flows inside, around, and just behind the words. It’s sewn into the music and activated by the singer’s voice. George Michael sang the meaning into his words.
In an English dictionary, careless means this. Whisper means this. Simple. Weave careless and whisper into a haunting saxophone riff and the words jump free from their dictionary definitions. The same goes for guilty feet. George wasn’t the first to imagine guilty feet: he may have heard the phrase sung in church or school from Tate and Brady’s 17th century metrical version of the Psalms (Psalm 9, verse 15). (Nahum Tate‘s words have reached forward into our century in While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night). We don’t know how guilty feet joined George’s personal word hoard. We know that he took them from the desert to the edge of the dance floor for a visceral feeling of betrayal trapped. It’s easy to imagine a bad conscience killing freedom. Easy to imagine, hard to translate.
The ‘meaning’ of Careless Whisper isn’t in the dictionary. Search for it there and you end up with David Armand:
So, Careless Whisper can’t be caught in word-by-word mime either. Its meaning is deliciously fugitive. True, David Armand is having fun, not doing his absolute best to be understood. I like his gibbon:
If you sing cover versions of English songs, you can learn a lot from the studio audience’s reaction to David Armand’s ‘interpretative dance’ of Careless Whisper. They’re invited to hear a song they know twisted and changed in David’s mime. In a comedy show like Fast and Loose, the audience are given permission, and encouraged, to express the conflict they feel between the information coming in through their ears and their eyes, by laughing.
Laughter is cathartic when it’s provoked by comedy. It’s another story if you provoke laughter unintentionally.
When you sing in English, believe what you’re singing, in the moment you sing it. Don’t give conflicting signals, look happy when the song is sad or emphasise the wrong words in your cover version. All make your audience feel uncomfortable, unless it’s clear that you’re looking for comedy. They’ll share your YouTube videos as a joke, leave snitty comments or switch off. Not good.
Congruency is king when you sing. It keeps your audience with you.
Watch Tommy Krångh connect to the soul of Jon Henrik Fjällgren’s Sami Joik in sign language. You don’t need to understand sign language, speak Swedish or any of the Sami languages, but you can’t avoid catching the emotional message of the song. Tommy embodies the musical energy of the song, which is where its true meaning lies. He’s utterly congruent.
If you sing, or if you’re interested in human code reading, watch Tommy and ask yourself what information you’re ‘reading’ in his performance. His expression? The speed and grace of his movements? His comfort level? Where are you finding the human information you need, in order to trust, understand and believe him? Imagine Tommy, keeping his feet completely still, signing each and every word, accurate, down to the last letter, but with a neutral face. How would that feel to you?
The song is this – and there’s a translation of the (minimal) Swedish lyrics here. Were you close?
If you plan to cover Careless Whisper, feel the soul of the song before reading the lyrics. Take the opening saxophone solo as your biggest clue. Steve Gregory, the saxophonist, sets the tone, for you and for your audience. Keep the wistfulness of Steve’s notes in mind when you sing the words:
Robyn Adele Anderson of Postmodern Jukebox keeps the words of Careless Whisper smooth and undulating. You can feel the soft to-and-fro movement of never, silver, rhythm, rocking gently from side to side like a cradle. Pairs of single syllable words like dance floor are tethered by rhyme to doubles (unsure) so that the sound sways like a snake-charmer’s pipe.
The gentle mood is shattered by the hard chop of the t sounds in guilty, feet, better, waste, hurt and cheat, just as the protagonist’s misguided fling chopped up his happy relationship.
Guilty feet have got no rhythm is the line that captivates and confuses native English speakers and non-native speakers alike. For native speakers of English, the line stops you in your tracks. You stop to understand it because it’s a thought you haven’t had before. Guilty feet isn’t a common expression or an idiom in English – though it’s in the Psalms. We can imagine guilty feet, but we have to stop to do it. It’s quite a ‘big’ imagining. We imagine guilty feet as sad, clumsy things. We imagine them vividly to fix them in our minds as we carry on through the song. We feel the imagining going all the way down to our toes. It’s a physical sensation.
As the lines finishes, we imagine our guilty feet having no rhythm as we try to dance normally with the woman we’ve betrayed. The body knows and, in an almost medieval sense, the body shows our guilt and our shame. We can’t hide. Music pulls the truth out of us. Our feet are guilty and they won’t lie. We can’t dance any more.
The line is masterful. It stops us, makes us think and hobbles us, just as guilt hobbles the singer.
If English isn’t your first language: be careful with careless and whisper. When you sing the word careless, don’t sing carry-less or kerrr-less. The r isn’t rolled, it’s soft and English. Like David Bowie’s r here. It’s crucial to sing a soft English r in Careless Whisper. You want to add space to the airy sound at the centre of careless. Regret fills that space like a grey cloud.
- Careless draws attention with its hard k beginning. Careless floats through its central are/air sound and finishes with the hiss of a snake. Don’t overdo any of the sounds. The word carries them all, without your help. Just make them clear and correct.
Careless is a cleverly chosen word for a song about guilt and betrayal – when you think about it, how on earth could anyone whisper carelessly? Especially a good friend.
- You need a soft English r for whisper too. Like this. Whisper needs to begin with a breath, slide up to a soft/hard sp and fall away into a schwa. Like a whisper. Careless and whisper paint sound pictures. Respect that.
- Roll the final r of whisper and you’ll be singing a different song. It’s your choice, but you need to know what you’re doing. Eugene Hutz could get away with it, but Careless Whisper is well known enough in its original, smooth form to sound like a parody if its r sounds are pronounced strongly.
- Let the song’s soft words swing and expand. Imagine a happy, long term relationship (George’s beloved has an engagement ring in the official 1984 video here).
- The smoother the memories of a happy time, the sharper the contrast and the greater the regret expressed by the destructive, choppy t sounds of the betrayal.
You can imagine how the dictionary definition of Careless Whisper confused my Greek friends. They ‘understood’ the song long before they picked up a dictionary. In fact, the dictionary confused them. The song gave them a haunting saxophone solo, mellow and nostalgic music and words, with a few scattered interruptions of t sounds to puncture the perfection. The message is carried by the sound: warm, regretful memories of happiness wrecked by the singer’s wrong actions. You don’t need to speak English to ‘get’ it.
The problems start when you expect a dictionary to lead you into the heart of any song. My Greek friends had done their best. Careless = not giving enough attention to what you are doing. Whisper = to speak extremely quietly so that other people cannot hear. Marry the two definitions and you’re left with confusion. But the music of Careless Whisper doesn’t sound confused. What’s going on?
Music is what’s going on. The words were chosen to suit and support the music. Sense-wise, George could have written indiscreet whisper, tactless whisper or careless mutter. Or many other words. None would have worked as perfectly as careless whisper. I doubt if George used a dictionary. I’d guess the music led his imagination to them.
George Michael is still bemused by the power of those words and the lasting popularity of Careless Whisper. As he told the Big Issue in 2009: “I’m still a bit puzzled why it’s made such an impression on people… Is it because so many people have cheated on their partners? Is that why they connect with it? I have no idea, but it’s ironic that this song – which has come to define me in some way – should have been written right at the beginning of my career when I was still so young. I was only 17 and didn’t really know much about anything – and certainly nothing much about relationships.”
When you cover an English song, remember: lyrics are English words flying free, like vivid butterflies. The same words plod, in their caterpillar form through the dictionary. Set them free with your voice. Be a butterfly, not a caterpillar.
© Sing Better English, 2015
14 thoughts on “Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm”
I had a lot of fun reading your post! Only a small problem – that saxophone solo is haunting me for the rest of the day! I hope it goes away tomorrow! 😀
Thanks Jose. Sorry about that!
I read an interesting thing about that sax solo (written by George Michael when he was only 17 – the sax solo, not the ‘interesting thing’!):
“George claims that he has gotten more compliments on his writing of the sax solo at the beginning of the song than on anything else he has ever written. The saxophone part was played by Steve Gregory, a session player based in London. As verified by Chris Porter, who was the engineer on the session, ten different sax players tried to do the solo before Gregory came up with the sound Michael was looking for. One of the challenges was getting so many notes in one breath. This was accomplished when Porter slowed down the tape when he recorded Gregory’s solo. When he played the tape back at normal speed, Michael approved it. The result is one of the most famous sax solos in popular music.
So you’re not alone in being haunted!
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I’m so much relieved now – thank you, Elaine. Knowing I’m not the only one makes me feel a bit better. Still I’ll have to try something drastic or … Any suggestion? 😀
Hmmm. It’s that ‘don’t think of pink elephants’ thing, isn’t it? The more you try to forget the solo, the more it will pop into your head. It’s funny, the sax solo wasn’t the part I remembered about the song; it was the line ‘Guilty feet have got no rhythm’ which has stayed in my head for more years than I care to remember. It’s a clever line – and it may well be true – somebody’s probably written a Phd on the effect of adultery on dancing ability! I suppose you’d dance more freely and more expressively if you weren’t feeling guilty.
And now I have a favor to ask – as a jazz aficionado – do you like Sarah Vaughan’s voice? I’d like to write about one of her songs. Which would you recommend? Or which is your favourite? (That’ll chase the sax solo out of your head!)
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Thank you so much for you concern! 😀 Today it’s a lost cause. I’ll do that first thing in the morning – I’m sure it will clear my mind, of course I like Sarah V. , I do believe in guilty feet with no rhythm, although I’m a terrible dancer, I hope people don’t remember that line like yourself when they see me dancing!
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Good morning, Elaine! As promised here it is “Misty” one of my favourite songs, Sarah Vaughan looks human (she’s got a cold), I find the video simply great, the lyrics should be enough for you to write quite interesting stuff, looking forward to read it!
My mind is clear today, there are no clouds, I can hear the birds singing outside, I could sing along with them – I sense that I needed to erase something from my mind – something tells me I shouldn’t go deeper into the matter!
Have a great weekend! 😀
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Aaah. Thank you. The internet is awash with Sarah Vaughan songs, so thank you for picking out a particularly precious one for me.
I’ll tell you why I needed some guidance on Sarah Vaughan – Carleen Anderson came to the Brighton Festival with her Sarah Vaughan tribute evening http://bit.ly/1FA6Qyu She wasn’t well (kept having to drink from her thermos and wash down some kind of medication) so it was hard to ‘get’ the magic of Sarah Vaughan.
In return – fair exchange is no robbery – I heard Juliet Russell on the radio this morning. Do you know her work? Here she is (nice animation too): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h9dZyn6-MI Perfect for a relaxing day.
Best wishes and thanks again
thank you for the video – On busy days I could use a bed like that! Have a nice day!
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How have I missed that show?! Great post and I’ve now got George Michael as an ear worm!
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Hi Cathy – sorry about that. Careless Whisper is super-earworm material. I had no idea Mr Michael wrote it when he was just 17, on his way to work at a local cinema. The things I’ve learnt!
Yes, Fast and Loose was fun – I don’t know why the BBC pulled the plug on it. Have you seen David Armand doing Love is All Around? The BBC says that you need to be over 16 to watch it – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00f7dqd
All best wishes
Hi Elaine, love this sign language interpretation. Good signers are such a treat to watch. Have you see Shelby Mitchusson’s signed version of Lose Yourself? It’s an amazing interpretation – authentic to both the original song and the interpreter. It’s well worth a look – but of course, the language is a little off-colour. (Gotta love Eminem). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoVDZJqTmRo
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She’s fantastic, isn’t she? It’s as if she inhabits the song and becomes the music.
I’m guessing she must have grown up using sign language? There’s a comfortable creative naturalness to her use of the language that suggests she truly loves it and/or that she’s been using it for years in her daily life with people that she loves.
Thanks for sending the link – Eminem has shifted in my mind since seeing a group of 9 year olds happily dancing Sevillanas to one of his songs in a village festival in Spain – to the applause and smiling appreciation of their parents and other, more elderly, members of the village community. They could hear the music without tripping over the swear words. It was an education!
What a great story, Elaine. Love the image of village elders clapping along to Eminem! He’s hugely talented, but I appreciated that not everyone enjoys his choice of words. Think the woman in the video is a sign language interpreter. Don’t know much else about her, but she did a wonderful job with this. A real artist!
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Did you see this gentleman at the Eurovision song contest – another artist:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaDob2RQldM