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 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?
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.
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