By the beginning of May 1982, Prince had recorded more than enough quality new material to fill a single LP; but he was still only a little more than halfway finished with the album that would become 1999. “I didn’t want to do a double album, but I just kept writing and I’m not one for editing,” he later explained to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “I like a natural flow. I always compare songwriting to a girl walking in the door. You don’t know what she’s going to look like, but all of a sudden she’s there” (Hilburn 1982).
The “girl” that walked in the door of Sunset Sound on May 2 was “Automatic”: the third–and, at nine and a half minutes, longest–of 1999’s extended electro-funk jams. Like its siblings “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic” unfolds over a rigid, knocking Linn LM-1 beat and a deceptively simple synthesizer hook–in this case, a sing-song four-note pattern perfectly honed to penetrate the cerebral cortex. But with its lyrical themes of emotion as technology, the song is ultimately closer in spirit to its more introspective neighbor on the album, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” The key difference is that, while “Something in the Water” is all about (perceived) malfunction, “Automatic” finds both pleasure and unease in the machine working exactly as designed.
On “Automatic,” Prince distills the intricacies of romantic and sexual connection into a clean, simple cause-and-effect relationship: love and lust as a computer programmer’s conditional expressions. “U ask me if I love U, it’s automatic,” he speak-sings in lockstep with the rhythm of the drum machine, “Cause everytime U leave me I die / That’s automatic too.” On one level, these lyrics read as a sly parody of the glibness that passes for feeling in conventional pop music; a line like “when U cry, me cry, boo hoo” reduces discographies’ worth of melodrama into seven banal syllables. But there’s also an unnervingly genuine desperation when Prince describes his indefatigable need to please, sexually and otherwise: “just tell me what to do,” he begs, “until it’s done.”
Of course, even the compulsory kind of relationship Prince describes still has its pleasures. When he promises, “I’ll go down on U all night long”–each word punctuated by a snare and cymbal hit from the LM-1–one can hear backing singer Jill Jones’ ears (among other things) perk up: “You will?” she asks breathily. “Yes, I will, baby,” is his cocky reply. Meanwhile, as critic Dave Hill writes, the severity of the track’s machinelike groove creates “a powerful erotic tension, which translates itself into a body language of short, contained physical ‘phrases’” (Hill 129). Prince’s performance alternates between surrendering to these repeating phrases and straining against them, creating an irresistible friction with every stray bass pop and yelped exclamation.
The push and pull between tension and release extends to “Automatic”’s overarching structure. After a breakdown about a third of the way in, Prince gushes forth a flood of rhapsodic spoken verse: “Don’t say no man has ever tasted your ice cream / Baby, you’re the purple star in the night supreme / You’ll always be a virgin for no man deserves your love / I only pray that when you dream, I’m the one you dream of.” Soon, he’s even broken free of the new rhyme scheme, spilling over into an apparent stream-of-consciousness monologue: “Stop me if I bore you… Why is it that I think we’d be so good in bed? Can you hear me? Why do I love you so much? It’s strange, I’m more comfortable around you when I’m naked, can you hear me? I wonder if you have any mercy, don’t torture me.” But before he can be carried too far away, the inflexible discipline of the rhythm track reins him back in.
It’s in the last third of “Automatic” when the dark undertones of its concept come to the fore. Channeling “your pilot Prince” from “International Lover,” the singer and his backing vocalists warn us to fasten seatbelts and “prepare for takeoff”; a synthesized hiss mimics the sound of a spacecraft entering the stratosphere. In Greek-chorus unison, the aforementioned Jill Jones and keyboardist Lisa Coleman recite Prince’s poetry back at him: “I dream of how you kiss me, not with your lips but with your soul”–a seemingly from-the-heart sentiment, now revealed as scripted and reduced of affect. The ladies, sounding profoundly bored, claim that “with you I’m never bored” before matter-of-factly shrugging, “I’m going to have to torture you now.” Prince plays a bluesy guitar solo–incidentally the most natural and organic-sounding element of the song–over Jill’s and Lisa’s anguished wails. Then, as suddenly as it began, the bizarre psychodrama concludes and we’re back to the base groove. The U.F.O. touches down and lifts off again, leaving a trail of cosmic synth chords in its wake.
It is, of course, impossible to talk about “Automatic” without at least mentioning its music video, which takes the lyrics’ fetishistic undertones to a decidedly literal conclusion. Shot on the same stage setup as the videos for “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” the “Automatic” video features Prince in purple gloves and double-breasted blazer, accessorized with a police officer’s hat for some light fascist chic. Lisa and Jill–the former in what looks to be Prince’s leopard-print jacket; the latter in sunglasses, an approximation of his studded overcoat, and little else–share a microphone and, later, a cigarette. When the “prepare for takeoff” moment comes, the girls wheel out a big brass bed–guitarist Dez Dickerson, hilariously, guiding it down the “runway” like an aircraft marshaller–then strip Prince to the waist (“Undress me!”), tie him to the bedpost, and whip him with Lisa’s belt. Needless to say, the video didn’t get any play on MTV, though it was reportedly released as a promo to be screened in nightclubs. Its tongue-in-cheek, low-rent porn aesthetic is a perfect match for the weird, absurd, and slightly sleazy song it dramatizes.
Infamous video aside, “Automatic” didn’t leave much of a direct mark on Prince’s canon–a victim, arguably, of the surfeit of good-to-great material on 1999. He kept it in the setlist for the first leg of the 1999 tour in 1982, before removing it in early 1983 to make room for singles “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” That same year, Warner Bros. released it as a single in Australia, though it does not appear to have made the charts. It popped up again on the Parade tour in 1986, as a fragment alongside fellow blast from the past “D.M.S.R.” Perhaps its most important legacy, however, was behind the scenes. With its jerky New Wave rhythms and Lisa’s reprisal of her role as a sapphic, vaguely menacing automaton, 1984’s “Computer Blue” was almost a soft rewrite of “Automatic,” with a little added introspection borrowed from “Something in the Water.” And of course, the song’s “torture” sequence wasn’t the last time we’d hear a creepy recording of Jill Jones crying: a backwards recording of her sobs would later make a prominent appearance in the film Purple Rain. “He seemed to just have a tape of me crying,” Jones later shrugged to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “and he’d put it in all these weird places like in the movie” (Tudahl 2018 260).
While “Automatic” remains something of a deep cut, it opened the door for a rich new subgenre of Prince songs: equal parts pop and avant-garde theatre, using the studio and the stage to map out the complex structures of power and desire in heterosexual relationships. He’d return to this well again, not only on “Computer Blue”–particularly the extended “Hallway Speech” version that ended up on the deluxe Purple Rain reissue–but also on later tracks like “Lovesexy,” “Eye Hate U,” and (arguably the apotheosis of the form) “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” And of course, within six months of the release of 1999, Prince would be throwing himself into an entirely new project: his feature film debut. Listening to “Automatic,” it’s easy to hear the roots of his cinematic obsessions–and to see an even stranger, smuttier alternative path had he decided to go arthouse instead of Hollywood.
That’s all for this week, but before I go, a quick Patreon update as I welcome Arlene Oak, Åsa Svanberg, and Adam Greenfield to the wonderful world of d / m / s / r patronship! Thank you all so much–and thanks to everyone, patrons and otherwise, who continue to read this blog and make the whole, insane task feel worthwhile. See you again soon!