Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Whisper Carelessly When You Can Let The Sax Can Do All The Talking? - Part II: A Tale Of Two Artist Credits

So where were we? Ah, yes, "Careless Whisper, Mach II." There are actually two different "final" versions of "Careless Whisper": the more familiar single mix, and the longer, not exactly obscure album mix, which features a minute and-a-half prelude not present on the single. George Michael goes ... prog? The latter version begins with about 25 seconds of ethereal synthesizer wash. It's like Tangerine Wham!. Then BOOM, in comes the flamenco guitar we know and love, coupled with some questionable Vocoder "dah-dah"ing. Suddenly, the wounded beast enters:
Time can never mend
The careless whispers of a good friend
To the heart and mind
Ignorance is kind
There's no comfort in the truth
Pain is the hole you'll find
And then, let there be drums. Of course, here is where the single mix begins, and I think I prefer the way the single version instantly plunges me into the melee. Also, note that the initial verse of the album mix is actually the second verse of the single mix, but in the album mix, it's like we're getting a little "flash-forward." It's like Tarantino. What's in the briefcase? What's in the saxophone? Same thing. I also like how he does a little Michael Jackson breath, turning "kind" into "kind-ahh!"

Other highlights:
  • During the chorus, as well as behind the sax breaks, on the second beat, there's this little percussive ... "pop!" It's like a woodblock, except softer? It makes me feel like I'm walking along a sandy beach on the North African coast as the sun sets. Maybe they found the studio where Lionel Richie had recorded "All Night Long" and raided the percussion closet. Note the tambourine tap on the fourth beat, almost as if the percussive "pop!" and the tambourine are "dancing" together.
  • 3:34 - As lead vocalist George sings "Should have known better than to cheat a friend," behind him appear a cluster of background Georges, like the cliched angels (or devils) on one's shoulder in cartoons, admonishing him with a sultry "Should've known better ... yeah."
  • The five-hankie third verse, complete with jarring synth blasts for added tension. "Tonight the music seems so loud/I wish that we could lose this crowd." It's turned out all wrong, baby, all wrong! Then George throws too many syllables into one line, as if he's straining to break free from the emotional prison he finds himself in: "Maybe it's better this way/We'd-hurt-each-other-with-the-things-we-want-to-say." I guess his earlier rap experience came in handy on that one. Then he does what no man should ever do, which is live his life in shouldas and couldas: "We could have been so good together/We could have lived this dance forever." Sure, and the South "could have" won the Civil War. Spare me. Finally, George unleashes a cry so agonizing, it must have almost single-handedly brought about the violent destruction of Wham!: "But nowwwwww ... who's gonna dance with me?" To quote Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home again.
  • After one final poignant saxophone blast, George fleshes out the murky scenario with some ad libs: "Nowwwww thaaaaat you're gone..." Now that she's gone? I thought they were still on the dance floor together. I don't get it. "Was what I did so wrong, so wrong that you had to leave me alone?" So did he cheat on her? I thought the whole point was that he was cheating on someone else with her. I'm still lost. Wisely, George realizes the futility of clarifying the nebulous plot and eventually reverts to wordless scatting (along the lines of "doo-dah, ba-dah-uh dah-uh) as the sinister Vocoder men make their return amidst the guitar noodling and bongo patting.
A brief note on the video: despite his passionate kisses with a comely female, George seems more excited by the rope swing he's fondling. Also, earlier I said the song makes me feel like I'm walking along a sandy North African beach as the sun sets; the video was actually shot in Miami, but honestly, same difference. Water, sunsets, hotel patios, generic high-rises - I definitely get a Tropic of Cancer feel from this bad boy.

But what truly makes "Careless Whisper" a landmark moment in '80s pop music, and western civilization, is that, in several ways, it is the first "solo George Michael" song. First of all, just listen to the recording itself. Brooding, silky, sensual - serious. This isn't your grandmother's Wham! Our little George has grown up; no more playing  the "cute" and "disposable" pop pin-up. Listen closely and you can hear traces of the future: the Spanish guitar flourishes in "Father Figure," the deserted late-night ballroom ambiance of "Kissing A Fool" and "Cowboys And Angels," the resigned fatalism of "Praying For Time." Allow me, in fact, to propose a new method of historical categorization. Instead of B.C. and A.D., perhaps we should start employing BCW and ACW: "Before 'Careless Whisper'" and "After 'Careless Whisper'." Let me know what you think.

Noting the stark stylistic departure, the record company must have sniffed the winds of change. Despite the song appearing as the eighth and final track on Make It Big, an album very obviously credited to "Wham!," Epic decided, in the UK and most global markets, to credit the single release to "George Michael." However, in the US, Canada, and Japan, the single bore a highly amusing credit. According to Wikipedia, "In the U.S.—so as not to confuse American listeners just being exposed to Wham!—the single was billed as 'Wham! featuring George Michael'."

Hold on a minute. "Not to confuse American listeners"? The irony here, of course, is that this awkward appellation could have been applied to every single Wham! recording ever. I mean, what sort of illusion were they trying to preserve here? "Well, we can't release it as 'George Michael,' because everyone will think he's going solo, and Wham! will be in chaos. But we don't want to release it as simply 'Wham!,' because this is obviously a special work that stands apart from regular Wham! fare, and our record-buying public deserves to know this." Some things just can't be done half-assed. Either it's "Wham!" or it's "George Michael," but enough of this "Wham! featuring George Michael" horseshit.

What's particularly hilarious about this credit is that "featuring" is usually applied to a guest vocalist who is not actually a permanent member of the group. For example, if "Under Pressure" had been credited to Queen featuring David Bowie (although I don't believe it was), that would have made sense. Examples of guest artists being credited as "featuring" in rap are legion. But how could George Michael be the guest vocalist ... of his own band? And you want to know what the biggest irony is? Apart from "Wham Rap!" and "Club Tropicana," "Careless Whisper" is one of the only Wham! songs to actually feature a co-writing credit from Andrew Ridgeley! Yes, the greatest Wham! song Ridgeley ever co-wrote ended up going down in history as the inaugural salvo of George Michael's solo career.

The unique ability of "Careless Whisper" to exist as both a "Wham!" and "George Michael" recording serves as a source of fascination for our esteemed Professor Higglediggle:
Few works of popular art have circumnavigated the liminal space between "band" and "solo" as "Careless Whisper" has. This dualism can be read as a further codification of George Michael's status as both a heteronormative symbol and homosexual signifier. Belonging neither to the construct of "Wham!" nor "George Michael," Michael's status can thus be iterated as both dominant and subdominant in the sociohistorical realm, reinforcing the myth of collective enterprise while at the same time subverting it, allowing Michael to bring an element of (inter)textual play to his performance as an artist who refuses to exist within the commodified boundaries of the record industry dialectic. One could arguably read "Careless Whisper" as a discursive confession directed from Michael toward Ridgeley, the lines "Guilty feet have got no rhythm" and "Time can never mend/The careless whisper of a good friend" revealing the catalyzing assemblage of motivations as Michael prepares to leave his partner. Alternately, the text could be interpreted as a vociferation of agony from Ridgeley to Michael, the lines "Should have known better than the cheat a friend" and "But now who's gonna dance with me?" suggesting Ridgeley's peripheral awareness of his perfunctory role in the duo. The ability of "Careless Whisper" to be read and (re)read through the lens of several reductionist frameworks, both normative and marginal, is one of the work's most apotheosized, if potentially problematic, qualities.