‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael: Meaning and Analysis

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Written by George Michael in 1979 when he was still a teenager, ‘Careless Whisper’ became a number one hit in 1984 on both sides of the Atlantic, topping both the UK and US singles charts.

This song, which remains a karaoke and dancefloor classic, is beloved by millions; yet the man who wrote it had few kind words to say about the song which launched his solo career.

Why? Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics of ‘Careless Whisper’, in order to divine the meaning of the song.

‘Careless Whisper’: song meaning

The song is about a lost love, but with the twist that the love has only been lost because the singer of the song cheated his former lover. This erstwhile lover was also his friend, as the chorus makes clear, making his infidelity a double treachery, of sorts.

Lyrically, the song’s most notable detail is the clever use of the motif of dancing and the dancefloor as a way to represent the singer’s remorse at cheating his lover-friend. He even goes so far as to say that he’ll never be able to dance again because his guilt has robbed him of the natural ‘rhythm’ a good dancer needs.

This focus on dancefloors is fitting, since the song was first played in a club where George Michael himself was working as a DJ. He’d just handed in his notice, so he didn’t care what they did to him: so he played his newly recorded song and watched the dancefloor fill up with punters eager for a slow dance to this new song.

As for the title of the song, that appears in the second verse, in the plural (‘careless whispers’). Time, the singer tells us, can never heal the ‘careless’ words we say to someone who is a good friend to us. In other words, he lied to them and abused their friendship, and things will never be right between them again.

The rest of the song sees the singer conflicted between wanting to be alone with his former lover to make things right, and knowing that it probably wouldn’t help to be alone with them (because the truth, which would inevitably be spoken between them, would hurt them too much, driving them further apart).

‘Careless Whisper’: analysis

‘It disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly – and not a particularly good lyric – and it can mean so much to so many people.’

So said George Michael, speaking about ‘Careless Whisper’ in his 1991 autobiography, Bare. ‘That’s disillusioning for a writer,’ he added.

Certainly, when it’s placed alongside some of his later work, such as ‘Praying for Time’, ‘Father Figure’, or the gorgeously meditative ‘Jesus to a Child’, ‘Careless Whisper’ seems like a slight piece of songwriting. Although it compares very favourably against late stinkers like 2002’s ‘Shoot the Dog’.

Indeed, although only two years separate Michael’s first and second solo number one hits, ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’, the difference in maturity is significant. As Michael told Rolling Stone in 2009, he was 17 when he wrote ‘Careless Whisper’ and he ‘didn’t really know much about anything – and certainly nothing much about relationships.’

And yet there’s no escaping the fact that ‘Careless Whisper’ does mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people. Why? The saxophone solo (obligatory for virtually all ‘big’ 1980s music productions: see Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ from a year earlier) helps to provide the soulful remorse that runs under the song, but there must be more to explain the success of this song than a good bit of sax.

George Michael himself was baffled by the enormous success of ‘Careless Whisper’. It’s a song about a cheat who regrets his infidelity and yet still wants to be with the person he wronged. Can there, Michael wondered, be that many cheats in the world? One would hope not.

Instead, the song is a good example of what we might call ‘partial identification’, whereby we selectively tune out certain aspects of a song’s meaning and focus on the way the overall tone of the song, the tempo, and parts of the lyrics generate their own personal ‘meaning’ to us.

In the case of ‘Careless Whisper’, those guilty feet can easily be tuned out, and we can instead focus on the ‘lost love’ element to the song: the fact that we will never dance with someone the way we danced with a partner we lost (whether or not we cheated on them), or the way we remember a first dance with someone we loved (a first love, perhaps).

The same thing happens with songs like ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police (another song released just one year before ‘Careless Whisper’ topped the charts): lyrically, a very sinister tale of surveillance and stalking which many people selectively choose to hear as a sweet song about intense, passionate love.


Comments are closed.