Woo, I got a big smile on my face when the Random Prince Song Generator landed on “Automatic” today. One of the slept on classics that Prince heads adore but most of the general music listening public has forgotten. Not sure where to start with this one.
Let’s get the facts out of the way first and then I’ll editorialize: “Automatic” was the sixth track on Prince’s 1982 classic breakthrough album 1999. It was also released as the album’s fifth and final single. Like so much of Prince’s best work, this song is given room to build with a 9:27 run time. The single version was tightened down to 3:30 but loses a lot of the freakiness that makes the song so great.
When I talk about Prince being his own genre, a song like “Automatic” comes to mind. The closest I can come up with for this song is new wave. It’s definitely not R&B, funk, or rock. There is some cool work all around instrumentally, but what makes “Automatic” work for me is the insanely tight drum programming. I could listen to this groove for hours, and practically have. I’ve recently started playing with some DJ equipment and a MIDI keyboard and it’s so fun to just loop eight bars of “Automatic” and play with sounds over that beat. Prince didn’t just play drums. He could program the hell out of them, too.
Here’s where it gets fun. We all know Prince was freaky. He tested boundaries on Dirty Mind and Controversy, but “Automatic” is so underrated as a freaky Prince classic. It’s easy to point to songs like “Head” and “Sister” as proof that Prince was not like the rest of us. A song like “Automatic” is less blatant about it. The video, however, was not. When you combine the two, Prince raises the bar for freakery. When the 8:21 video begins it doesn’t look much different than every other Prince video from that era. Smoky soundstage. Dez and BrownMark to the left and right of him. Dr. Fink and Bobby Z in their usual positions as well. There are two early indicators that this isn’t your typical Prince video: Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones are together on keyboard as they have been in the past, but they’re looking more erotic than usual. Specifically, Jones is damn near naked in a bikini, trenchcoat, and sunglasses. Prince is in some kind of skin tight purple yacht captain’s outfit, but there’s something about the way he’s eyeballing the camera that lets you know his intentions aren’t good.
Nothing too out of the ordinary happens for the first four minutes of the video, and then Dez Dickerson trades in his guitar and becomes a loading dock worker, guiding a rolling bed on to the stage. Jill Jones lights up a cigarette for Lisa Coleman, and the two of them make their way out from behind the keyboard to the bed with Prince and start undressing him. For a solid minute I’m thinking to myself, “Holy shit. These three are actually going to have sex on this stage in a music video.” I’m also thinking, “Lisa Coleman is a classically trained pianist. I’ll bet she didn’t have this in mind during all of those hours of practice.” Or maybe she did. I shouldn’t assume anything.
Anyway, while the girls are undressing Prince he goes in to a spoken part of the song and I’ll let these lyrics speak for themselves:
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
I pray that when you dream, you dream of how we kissed, not with our lips but with our souls
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 mercyDon’t torture meWhen it comes to you I’m automatic baby
There’s no one else like me
I’m the best you’ll ever find
No one else could understand you, you’re too complex
They say nothing’s perfect, but they don’t know you
That’s automatic too
Can you hear me?
Yes, I’m addicted to your pleasure
I’m addicted to your pain
Then, as Prince is now shirtless with his wrists tied to the bed frame and you’re thinking, “This couldn’t get any stranger,” it takes a different turn. I foolishly assumed Jill Jones was going to start…umm…pleasuring him or something? Nope. Instead they start spinning the bed around and Lisa begins whipping him while Jones holds him down. At some point it seems Jones feels his pain and ends up on writhing on the floor until Lisa stops the whipping. And that’s the video for “Automatic!” A fantastic combination of troubling, sexy, cool, uncomfortable, and awesome. They made this in 1983! Prince was the best.
So, you know how Apple Music makes playlists for artists called “Essentials” and “Next Steps?” “Automatic” would be on my Next Steps list. An essential Prince song, and a single – albeit, an obscure one – but not one of his best remembered hits. I’m struggling with my score on this song because I love it, but there are so many Prince songs to love. I can’t give it a 5 out of 5. I’m going to call it a very strong 4 out of 5. If I was giving out .25’s, I would give it a 4.25 instead. I want to give it a 4.5, but I’m really trying not to give everything a high score, so I’m going to only say 4 out of 5 and hope that my rambling here will convey to you how much I adore this song even if it looks like the score doesn’t reflect the amount of praise it’s getting. As we get deeper in to Prince’s catalog I think 4 out of 5 will be the right call.