What do you hear in your head when you read the word "saxophone"?
It's “Careless Whisper," isn't it?
It’s one of the most iconic saxophone melodies in pop music history. To some, the first four notes alone instantly summon sex, evoking the kind of smoldering passion you’d find in a romance novel or a Hollywood love scene. To others, it’s the cheesiest thing ever recorded, about as ridiculous and tawdry as, well, a romance novel or a Hollywood love scene.
A melody like that can often overshadow the artist. You probably don’t know who Gerry Rafferty is, but you know “Baker Street” when you hear it. But things were different with “Careless Whisper.” After all, how could anything ever overshadow George Michael?
At 53, the pop superstar is gone, a late-in-the-game casualty of the 2016 rash of celebrity deaths. He began his career as the face of squeaky-clean teen pop with the duo Wham! before transitioning into a sex symbol flirting with gospel as a solo artist. In later years, he concentrated on advocating for HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues, both before and after coming out as bisexual.
“Careless Whisper” was his Miami moment. The 1984 song, co-written with Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley, was his solo debut, catching him at a moment of transition from teen idol to mature heartbreaker. For the track’s video – all-important in the MTV era – they needed a location that matched the light, tropical vibe of the song’s bongo and Spanish-guitar-flecked groove. The Magic City fit perfectly.
Watching the video is like getting a guided tour of the '80s. Notice, for instance, the boombox next to Michael as he and his bae, dressed in a neon-pink shirt, cuddle on a Watson Island dockside. Get a load of his side chick, first seen stepping out of a black Corvette at the beach — Haulover, perhaps? — and later on a yuppie-fied sailing trip. You could almost say it set the stage for Miami Vice.
Of course, not all of “Careless Whisper” is bright and sunny – the song is, after all, a sordid tale of heartbreak and shame in which the singer laments his foolishness and vows never to dance again after spurning his friend. “Guilty feet have got no rhythm,” he croons. The two-timer is left alone when his sweetheart discovers his cheating ways and leaves (in a seaplane, of course). Miami becomes the backdrop for his suffering. Bright lights fade into a lonely sunset skyline, and Michael can’t help but think of his jilted lover as he peers across the horizon at the Freedom Tower. The video ends as he retreats, dejected, into the penthouse of the Grove Towers condominiums.
As far as videos go, it’s no “Thriller,” and it’s nowhere close to Michael’s “Faith.” But it is an unforgettable song, and it links Miami to an unforgettable man. Rest in peace, George. We’ll love you till the end of time.
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