Very Careless Whispers: Misunderstanding the Eighties

This changes everything.  Instantly, everything I understood to be true has been upended like a turned over table.  I no longer know what’s real.  Once, there were things I accepted as true, and those bedrock principles were the foundation on which I built my life.  But not anymore.  It was all a fraud.  A farce.  An utter failure.  I take full responsibility.  The blame is mine and mine alone and it is I that must reap the whirlwind of this catastrophic miscalculation.  I speak, of course, of ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael slash Wham!

It’s a masterpiece.  On second thoughts, that might be an understatement.  The eighties were an embarrassment of riches when it came to pop music but even then, ‘Careless Whisper’ stands apart.  To begin, it has one of the best saxophone riffs of all time.  Dramatic, urgent and tragic; the sax motif in Careless Whisper is as addictive as it is instantly recognisable.  To this day, it leaps into my head all the time.  Whenever I hear a sports report about a ‘careless high tackle’, George Michael’s almighty sax riff starts playing in my mind.

But it’s not the saxophone I misunderstood.  It’s the lyrics.  For decades, I thought George was saying that ‘gifted feet have got no rhythm’.  I knew exactly what he meant.  In theory, I am a fabulous dancer.  In practice, I have two left feet if both of those feet have been dipped in concrete, doused in an accelerant and then set on fire for good measure.  Put another way, my gifted feet have got no rhythm.

The story of a young man whose feet have committed the ultimate act of betrayal, quite possibly resulting in him treading all over the Hush Puppies of his dance floor partner, was tragedy on a grand scale.  It was something to which I could relate.  As a teenager, my feet let me down all the time; whether I was dancing or simply trying to walk.  I was prone to stumbling and tripping when it was least expected and least welcome.  My mouth was no better.  Gifted though it was, it had a habit of running away whenever I let it off the leash.

My father is the same.  His gifted feet – as small and cloven as they may be – have left him incapable of dancing at all.  Most of the times, he refrains.  But on those occasions when he lets loose because someone has slipped the David Guetta remix of ‘Sink the Bismarck’ on the stereo, his feet begin a stamping motion that resembles someone trying to extinguish a small fire.  George Michael would approve. 

But last week, the world as I knew it came crashing down around my ears.  I was in the car with Katrina when the song came on.  Immediately, I started playing air saxophone (I wasn’t the one driving – safety first) before joining George on a full-throated rendition of ‘Careless Whisper’.  It was during the chorus that she corrected me.  Turns out it’s not ‘gifted’ feet but ‘guilty feet’.  The song is not, in fact, a lament about not being able to dance but a story of betrayal sung by a protagonist who has ruthlessly two-timed his girlfriend.  The cad!  No wonder the saxophone sounds upset.

It got me thinking – if I’ve fundamentally misunderstood ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael slash Wham! then what else from the eighties have I misconstrued?  Probably everything.  Instead of hopelessly awkward, was I in fact incredibly suave and sophisticated, the envy of my peers and strangers alike?  Were other people secretly in awe of my homemade acid wash jeans?  Granted, at the time they seemed to be a magnet for ridicule, but perhaps this was just a cover for a profound and deep-seated sense of admiration at my ingenuity.  (For the record, I don’t recommend DIY acid wash.  In short, it stings.)  My black four-buckled goblin boots, which were for a time, home to my gifted feet, were actually super cool and did not make me look like Santa’s helper.  I wish.

It was inevitable that the song confused me.  The tune is, by its nature, an exercise in duality.  Impeccably sung by George Michael, back when he had Princess Diana-style hair, it was co-written by his Wham! band mate,  Andrew Ridgeley, but considered by some to be a George Michael solo single.  More confusingly still, in some countries it was branded as ‘Wham! featuring George Michael’.  I’m not sure how that works when you’re a duo.  Of course you’re going to be featured.  The band only has two people – you’re both going to be busy.

It mattered not.  The label could have read ‘Careless Whisper – a rock opera by the Tooradin Womble Ensemble’ and it would still have sold millions.  I’m pretty sure that my time in the eighties is exactly as awkward as I recall.  There’s nothing that George Michael or even Wham! featuring George Michael can do to convince me otherwise.  Instead, I have to face the altogether more brutal reality that I was completely and utterly wrong about something.  For a really, really long time.

Careless Whisper is still a giant of a song.  And my gifted feet still have no rhythm.  None at all.  But that’s all right; I’ve made peace with it now.  And as I drift off to a fitful sleep tonight, the sounds of a dramatic saxophone will guide me to my dreams.  Sweet dreams are truly made of this.  But that is a story for another time.