"Credit Card Baby" and "Careless Whisper"
7. “Credit Card Baby”
Buried near the end of Make It Big and a mere forethought to the closing catharsis that is “Careless Whisper”, the spare “Credit Card Baby” is certainly among the most overlooked tracks on the album. Not a chart hit or a club staple of any strength, it’s quickly dismissed as filler.
But in the murky tension of the emotionally abusive relationship that is fundamentally at the core of Make It Big, “Credit Card Baby” is actually the capstone moment—the breaking point where the conflicted heart of “Everything She Wants” is finally resolved in the kiss-off that ends it for good. Without “Credit Card Baby”, the anguished reminiscence of “Careless Whisper” can’t serve as denouement; the emotional arc would remain incomplete. It’s this dramatic pivot that makes “Credit Card Baby” so significant in efforts to appreciate fully the achievement of Make It Big.
Though rightly regarded as a piece of emblematic “1980s pop”, Make It Big‘s strength is the subtle revelation of darkness inside its characters. George Michael’s compositions speak to love, and the music is beat-driven and aimed at the dance floor, but the album narrative is that of an unbalanced love affair—chaotic, passionate, intense, and destructive. Michael’s appeal might have been driven by his looks and charming grin on MTV, but on the radio and on Wham!‘s albums, there was heartache beyond all that sheen. From the album’s outset, the ambiguity of the relationship depicted in “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” suggests some kind of chase and pursuit of an indifferent lover—the fear of being left “hanging on like a yo-yo”.
By the time we get to “Everything She Wants”, our narrator has the object of his desire but is still having to chase him or her and buy his or her affections. This unrequited yearning for equality and true love continues throughout the album—the past reflections on “Heartbeat”, the push-me-pull-you of “Like a Baby”, the desperation cry of “Freedom”, even the Isley Brothers I-ain’t-cheating cover in “If You Were There”—spells out a warlike love affair. It’s melodramatic, but it’s also eminently relatable, speaking to the desperation for love in all of our lives.
“Credit Card Baby”, then, is a moment of empowerment—a final refusal to keep putting up with all the shit bemoaned throughout Make It Big. But unlike with the rallying cry of “Freedom” (where this desperation is twisted to stake the final claim to victory in the chase), Michael sets the caustic lyrics of “Credit Card Baby” to a simple candyfloss pop song. Featuring another Motown croon from Michael, the song has all the blue-eyed soul of Huey Lewis and the News as well as that era-defining marriage of horns and handclaps. But for all its pep and swing and studio craft, it’s still a final challenge to a love built on money and unhealthy covetousness: Take the money and run, but I don’t love you anymore.
If the message of “Credit Card Baby” is that of final breakup muddled by the singer’s apparent willingness to permit his lover to continue leeching off him, then “Careless Whisper” works as the final resolution—the gray and rainy night where our heart-weary narrator walks away at last, heavy with thoughts of what was. And this arc completes the luminous cycle of Make It Big, its lofty romance grounded in sentimental whispers of old ghosts—and, we must assume, ruined credit ratings. Patrick Schabe
8. “Careless Whisper”
You know you’ve made something special when friggin’ Seether pull an Orgy-level blasphemous hack job on your song. When your record label insists on releasing the single as credited not to the band but to the singer whose solo career they want to push (poor Andrew Ridgely –- unlike almost all of Wham!’s singles, he actually co-wrote this one). When, according to Wikipedia, “in Ecuador, the song’s saxophone riff is often used as a reference to homosexual people”. Yes, when all that happens and your song still stands proud as the sixth-best breakup song of all time (as voted by viewers of Britain’s Favourite Breakup Songs!), you know that you pretty much can’t fuck with “Careless Whisper”.
Let’s start with that Steven Gregory saxophone riff. Apparently, Michael came up with it in his head while waiting for a bus, and while you might think it’s going to follow prevalent mid-‘80s trends and be cheesy enough to ruin the song, Gregory makes it both soulful enough and, more important, propulsive enough that it serves to push the song forward whenever it kicks in. It’s the rare saxophone part on a ballad that you actually look forward to, and the influence from it shows up in the weirdest spots, everywhere from shitty jazz bars to, say, Arab Strap. (Seriously, try telling me the horns on “Tanned” don’t serve the same function.)
But the real highlight, the part that cuts through and justifies the proto-Sade atmospherics of the bulk of “Careless Whisper”, is George Michael’s delirious, aching chorus. We can all sing along with “I’m never going to dance again / Guilty feet have got no rhythm”, but Michael sings it with a perverse sense of joy undercutting the real agony that he/the song feels, the late night cry of someone punishing themselves for their indiscretions by consuming too many substances, too many public displays of guilt. He makes token feints toward responsibility, toward actually talking to the person (who, crucially, we never hear from—Michael claims that what he’s done is so wrong that the person “had to leave me alone”, but the song suggests a narrator prone to overreaction at best) before deciding that it’s best if they don’t talk, “we’d hurt each other with the things we’d want to say”.
It’s a weirdly masochistic song, but in a way most of us can identify with. Whether you’re the wronged party or the one doing the wronging, the hard thing to do is to settle down, stop pretending everything is dead and over, and talk to the person. “Careless Whisper” evokes perfectly the strangely decadent feeling of giving up, of being melodramatic and obsequiously sorry rather than being an adult. Sometimes you do it because in the back of your mind you know the relationship needs to end; sometimes just because it feels good to fall on your own sword in such a swooningly romantic fashion. And as long as it does, “Careless Whisper” will be there. Ian Mathers
// Notes from the Road
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