A great cover version lives its own life. As a child of the original, it carries DNA forwards, but shines on its own terms. You recognise the mother’s eyes or the father’s nose, but the face itself is new.
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:
When you sing in English, be kind to your audience. They rely on you to be clear, especially when you sing words with opposite meanings but similar sounds, like can and can’t. Without your help, they won’t know which word you’re singing. The confusion will distract them. They won’t relax until they’re sure whether you can or can’t feel it in the air tonight. You’ll upset them if you sing “You can’t leave your hat on” or “We can stop” or “Baby, you can’t drive my car” by mistake.
If the difference between can and can’t isn’t clear to you, how do you make it clear to your audience? First, focus in on the sound. Watch Los Bravos singing Black is Black. How many times do you hear the word can and how many times do you hear can’t? By the way – where do you think the singer is from?: