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: