Preprogrammed Romance: ‘Automatic Man’ by Michael Sembello, 1983

 Exhibit / March 23, 2017

Object Name: “Automatic Man” by Michael Sembello (music video)
Maker and Year: Michael Sembello, director unknown, 1983
Object Type: Music video
Description: (Michael Grasso, Richard McKenna, K.E. Roberts)

ROBERTS: Michael Sembello is best known for “Maniac,” obviously, which plays in Flashdance (1983) over the training montage (before I forget: dibs on the “training montages in ’80s films” feature). Both “Maniac” and “Automatic Man” were singles off of Sembello’s debut LP, 1983’s Bossa Nova Hotel, although this is the first time Sembello makes an appearance in a music video (the “Maniac” video is footage from Flashdance). Perhaps someone can tell me what the fuck is going on here?

GRASSO: Well, I’m going to go out on a limb and conservatively call this video “high-concept.” There are ancient elements blending with (presumably) the post-apocalyptic, which was a common enough theme of 1980s sci-fi movies. There’s a certain baroqueness and excess in the set decoration that reminds me of a few other sci-fi-tinged videos, like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “You Got Lucky,” which is a longtime favorite of mine. But what really moves this video from its very center is SEMBELLO—just dripping raw animal charisma and incisive thespian choices from every pore. In no way does he look like a key grip who wandered over to the set to fill in last minute. Richard?

MCKENNA: The relatively glossy production values, implied “previously on Automatic Man” knowledge, and the fact that Sembello doesn’t even start singing until a good 80 seconds in mean that for a long, bewildering moment it looks as though this is the title sequence of some short-lived Mr. Merlin– or Struck by Lightning-like sitcom. Directly after “Automatic Man was released, coincidentally, Sembello appeared on TV show Automan performing… “Maniac”? Even more confusing is why someone who looks like one of the Hills Have Eyes clan would have such a mellifluous voice. And why the fuck is the baddie dancing when everyone else is playing it straight, or as close to straight as you can get in what looks like some L.A. producer’s bad peyote trip?

ROBERTS: Notice the shuriken on SEMBELLO’s feather-adorned, Italian Road Warrior-knock-off leather vest. We’re approaching the height of the ‘80s ninja craze, and Return of the Ninja, the second film in Cannon’s ninja “trilogy,” was released days before Bossa Nova Hotel. I was also amused to see the perspective light grid make an appearance in the video.

GRASSO: Yes! Both the light grid and shuriken appear, grounding us firmly in the ’80s visual zeitgeist. Personally, I’m more interested in the stone circle that houses the crystal that Sembello uses to scry on the mad scientist creating life in his futuristic/medieval castle/lab. (That “Frankenstein” is oddly reminiscent of LazyTown‘s Robbie Rotten, by the way.) Sembello’s divination makes me wonder exactly how the chronology and geography of the video breaks down. I’ve watched it about four or five times at this point and I don’t know how the apparent stable time loop that Sembello triggers at the beginning of the video resolves itself. I think we’re meant to understand that Sembello somehow created the initial petrified tableau, then scried into the past to see how the Automatic Man was created, then de-petrified the figures before ultimately re-petrifying them and then once again de-petrifying the Automatic Man and the Love Interest right before the closing freeze-frame. With all the crystals and pylons and mysterious ancient stones, I’m reminded that this timeline is way more complicated than Land of the Lost‘s!

If I can take a moment to talk about the music! It’s an upbeat, electronically-inflected post-disco number with crunchy vocal synth hits that recall nothing less than some of the more interesting flourishes on Bon Iver’s most recent effort, 22, A Million (2016), specifically the “bit by bit” breakdowns in the choruses on the track “666 ʇ.” Musically, I just can’t hate this song. Yes, it’s very much of its time, but it’s danceable and damned catchy. And lyrically it’s a tour-de-force of early ’80s sci-fi tropes. I find myself thinking of classic “robots learning to love” movies like Heartbeeps (1981) and Android (1982).

MCKENNA: The song’s a monster, definitely; so good that even the bizarre, burping Fairlight sample can’t spoil it, and after repeated viewings I’ve finally worked out who the mad scientist character reminds me of: Dick Dastardly as played by Charles Napier. “Stayed up endless nights/Like some Frankenstein… I’m watching, too/Through his video eyes” almost makes it sound as though this Automatic Man is some kind of avatar—a romance waldo, if you like—that Sembello has assembled to do his courting for him, a fairly unique concept in pop music. The Automatic Man in the video is a bit of an enigma, particularly that unnerving and frequently-repeated head wobble, and his breaking the fourth wall to give us a pleased-with-himself smirk contains an implicit assumption that he’s cute enough to get away with it—an assumption that I’m afraid I don’t share. Interesting that you two notice the shuriken yet don’t comment on the reflective crow’s feet adorning Sembello’s eye. And what about the Billy Jean-esque fretboard he knocks out that solo on? And does Sembello get the girl at the end? Or is he just some kind of cosmic observer?

ROBERTS: I’m impressed that you guys are actually trying to figure out what’s going on. I know I asked, but it was clearly a rhetorical question. All that matters is that Sembello (sorry, SEMBELLO) is built like Dick Butkus, has more facial hair than a Bigfoot, and is wearing more make-up than the guy who’s playing the Automatic Man. And yet, the performer and his song—hell, even the video, to some extent—are refreshingly and uniquely themselves. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, given that Sembello learned how to write songs from Stevie Wonder.

4 thoughts on “Preprogrammed Romance: ‘Automatic Man’ by Michael Sembello, 1983

  1. Dood, bra-freakin’-VO! This is probably the best ’80s music video analysis and analogy I’ve ever read, lol. This should totally be a section/department on WATM. There’d be so many specimens out there to dissect!

  2. Pingback: ‘It’ll End In Tears’ by This Mortal Coil, 1984

  3. Pingback: “The Power of Music”: General Electric Stereo Commercial, 1985

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