Prince Explores Motivations of the Flesh on ‘Automatic': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
There were two sides to Prince – the profane and the sacred. Or, so we've often been told. In truth, however, he was far more complex, exploring a number of other subjects while taking time along the way to ask hard questions about his two principal creative impulses.
"Automatic," for instance, finds Prince digging deeply into his own relationship motivations, wondering if his every move has turned into a pre-programmed set for actions and reactions: "You ask me if I love you / It's automatic," he sings. "'Cause every time you leave me, I die / That's automatic too."
On paper, those lyrics might read as a simple declaration of undying passion. But darkness surrounds Prince on the track, as he wrestles with what is clearly an unshakeable impulse.
Frigid synth-scapes and an appropriately robotic cadence – they were created, as with everything else save for backing vocals from Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones, by Prince himself – transform his every utterance into an astonishing confession. He sounds melancholy and obsessive, and then detached entirely from eroticism by worry.
What's the end game? Heartbreak? Damnation? One and then the other?
Coleman and Jones end up playing both judge and jury, spelling out the title like a Greek chorus and then – in a closing sequence that is actually far more chilling than titillating – crying out as Prince is subsumed in a billowing cataclysm. Those cries aren't ecstatic; instead, they're strikingly mournful. Prince had earlier talked about Judgment Day on 1999's title track; here, he's surrounded by flames.
Such, perhaps, are the pitfalls of your average God-fearing swordsman. He surrenders to the flesh, and then finds himself seeking some sort of penance.
"Automatic" followed a trend for this double album, unfolding as something both hypnotically experimental and somehow weirdly accessible after Prince's opening one-two-three pop punch of "1999," "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious." He was striking out toward a new frontier where the twin strands of new wave and R&B meet, even as he expressed incredibly raw emotions – the kind anybody might have – about love's pitfalls.
Unfortunately, it all got reduced down to tut-tutting over the video. A shortened version of "Automatic," without the day-of-reckoning interlude, was released – but only in Australia, where it apparently didn't chart. Prince starred in a then-controversial video for the song, which found Coleman and Jones closing things out with their own brand of S&M justice, but wisely avoided submitting the clip to MTV since its ending would likely have led to a ban anyway.
Instead, "Automatic" found a home via projectors at dance clubs and other friendly venues, and subsequently as a sought-after collector's item among Prince diehards and others in search of a buzzy thrill. Then in July 2017 (a little over a year after Prince's sudden death), it suddenly appeared on his official YouTube channel, along with a number of other videos.
For all of the intrigue found in Prince's subject matter, the performance-style clip actually unfolds in an entirely conventional, now-familiar setting. Director Bruce Gowers filmed "Automatic" on the same set where he'd also helmed "1999" and "Let's Pretend We're Married," with only Prince's outfit and this track's prosaic conclusion – Prince is strapped to a bed that's been rolled out before the miming Revolution – to differentiate it from the others.
The clip ultimately re-casts "Automatic" in a more conventional manner, too. Prince now appears to be nothing more than a submissive lover, taking part in an escalating sexual encounter. But streamlining the narrative ends up adding another layer of intrigue. Is this simply an attempt to avoid any earlier romantic misgivings, or an outgrowth of his continuing fetishes?
The answers, once again, aren't found in a binary point of view. That's a tribute to "Automatic," a song that remains one of Prince's most nuanced examinations on our relationship with earthly desires – and a lasting argument against applying simple frameworks around him as a songwriter.
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