Released: 10th February 2003
Writers: Richard Stannard / Julian Gallagher / Dave Morgan
Peak position: #11
Chart run: 11-22-23-31-45-59-72-75
An early exit from Pop Idol hadn’t stopped Sarah Whatmore reaching the top 10 with her debut single. So, having overcome that hurdle, the follow-up should’ve been a breeze…right?
Though it undoubtedly didn’t feel so at the time, Sarah Whatmore’s failure to progress through the live heats of Pop Idol worked in her favour when it came to launching a pop career. She still had an association with and narrative – however brief – from the show (which included a proposal from Simon Cowell) but enough artistic anonymity for there not to be any real expectation of the music she’d eventually release. If, indeed, anyone was still expecting her to at all. When I Lost You was, thus, warmly received, in no small part because – having originally been intended for Kylie Minogue’s Fever album – it sounded legitimately like something a current pop act of the time would’ve released rather than a premeditated TV talent show single.
Ideally, a swift follow-up would’ve continued building momentum, but the timing was awkward, and releasing Automatic into the busy festive market would almost certainly have meant it getting lost. So the alternative – and arguably more sensible – approach was for Sarah Whatmore’s record label to wait until early(ish) in the new year, which they did. But it wasn’t without a drawback because, by that point, five months had passed since the release of When I Lost You.
There was no real reason Sarah Whatmore couldn’t pick up where she left off. But while Automatic is a great track, it doesn’t necessarily jump out as the right single in that respect. Rather than build on the cool, credible dance-pop of her debut, the influence this time comes from Jennifer Lopez’s Play. It’s not remotely subtle, either. The squelchy bassline is more or less identical (save for a few notes being rearranged to ostensibly pass the song off as an original composition); there’s a stuttering dance break: “Oh yeah, you know I wanna, I wanna get over you, so I’m gonna, I’m gonna dance. Oooh!”, while the track is similarly punctuated with a series of grunts, pants and whoops from Sarah Whatmore. Thus, the rough rule of thumb, and presumably the intention for doing this, is that people who liked Play would, by extension, probably enjoy Automatic. And if she appealed to even half that audience, Sarah Whatmore had another top ten single on her hands.
However, in giving off a first impression that the track exists solely to riff on an earlier hit (and there’s no avoiding the fact that it does), Automatic does itself a bit of a disservice because that’s where the similarities end. This is not an ode to Sarah Whatmore’s love of music (and she’s certainly not about to demand the DJ play her ‘motherfucking song’, though that would have made quite a statement). Instead, the funky production accompanies a cutting kiss-off directed at a soon-to-be ex-lover: “It’s the same old story, I’m tired of you wearing me down, ‘cos there is nothing here for me, and baby I’ll see you around”. The lyrics have a refreshing candour, taking a slightly darker and more adult tone than the usual pop music breakup tropes. They touch – albeit superficially – on themes like emotional abuse: “You make me feel so sexy, and then you make me feel like dirt, you gotta know how it affects me, ‘cos baby it hurts”, and exploitation: “You tried to video tape me, then you tried to rent me out, but baby you could never freak me, I will show you what I’m all about”, giving a sense of substance beneath the contrastingly cheerful delivery.
However, the main thrust of Automatic is as a fun, rousing statement of female empowerment and togetherness. Thus, it soon adopts a more bombastic approach. With its thumping keyboard stabs, the pre-chorus is a sassy call to arms: “So give him up, ‘cos he ain’t big enough a no no, don’t fall in love, ladies get up to get down”. Meanwhile, the chorus itself: “You’re automatic, don’t you know that you drive me crazy, you’re always at it, baby you’re not treating me right no; so understand it, I’m a one lover bass lovin’ lady, I caught you at it, get out of my life” is – perhaps – a tad thematically lightweight compared to the verses, but compensates by being the hook-laden, naggingly catchy lynchpin that holds the track together.
Essentially, Automatic gets away with borrowing so heavily from Play because Sarah Whatmore is incredibly likeable and does it so engagingly. However, the same cannot be said for the music video, where the wheels come off a bit. It’s entirely fair that 19 Recordings and BMG might have wanted to tread carefully. But there’s budget, and then there’s this. Sarah Whatmore finds herself dancing under scaffolding and walking past piles of disused furniture in the street; it’s (quite literally in some shots) a rubbish concept made worse still by the dreary black-and-white aesthetic. That’s not to say she doesn’t have the star quality to make the best of what little there is to work with. The knee-high opening shot of Sarah Whatmore’s boots walking onto the street is a promising tease, and she serves attitude when dressing down her lover by performing the song to him in a crowd of onlookers. Yet, there’s a constant sense that Automatic warranted far better than such a visually unappealing treatment, and it’s difficult to understand the intention. If the single had been rushed out after When I Lost You made such a positive impact, that would be an explanation (of sorts). But given there’d been time to take stock of what worked, this just doesn’t seem a logical means of consolidating Sarah Whatmore’s success.
There’s never really a good time for a song to peak at #11, which is precisely where Automatic ended up. However, record labels went through a phase during the early-’00s, in particular, where such an outcome seemed, for some reason, to cause a level of panic that subsequently led to kneejerk – and usually wholly disproportionate – reactions. Sarah Whatmore was no different. Automatic actually held up reasonably well, spending eight weeks in the top 75 (only one less than When I Lost You). However, that didn’t stop the plans for her debut album, Living Proof, from derailing entirely. A third single – which, at one point, could’ve been Toxic before it went to Britney Spears – fell through, and the album was shelved indefinitely, never to be heard until it found its way onto the internet in 2017…
With no further chart appearances to her name, it would not have been unreasonable to assume Sarah Whatmore had quietly parted ways with 19 Recordings. After all, they weren’t exactly renowned for holding onto artists any longer than necessary. But she remained signed and eventually released an album, fittingly titled Time To Think, through the label in 2009.
As for Living Proof, it was consistent with the two singles in seeming content to borrow – quite competently – from other artists’ sounds rather than allowing Sarah Whatmore to develop her own. Nevertheless, even though Automatic missed the top 10 by a whisker, the public was still more engaged than they had been during Pop Idol. So, curtailing the album campaign at this stage was an unnecessary act of self-sabotage.