The idea of “clean” and “unclean” readings of a given pop culture artifact is introduced by the musicologist Robynn Stilwell in her essay “Clean Reading: The Problematics of ‘In the Air Tonight’ in Risky Business.” It boils down to the following: when you watch that scene in Risky Business, and hear that song, are you expecting that “duh-Guh duh-GAH! duh-Guh duh-Guh DAH-duh” drum fill that comes in at around 1:45 into the video? If you’ve heard the “In the Air Tonight” before, you will be expecting it: it’s far and away the most memorable and salient gesture in the whole song. Contrariwise, if you’ve never heard the song before, you won’t be expecting it, because you can’t. You might expect something, based on the song’s slowly building energy, but you can’t know what it’ll be.
And then one more point, which might seem obvious but is worth stating nonetheless: your experience of the song (and the scene) if you do know the drum fill is coming is not at all the same as your experience of the song (and the scene) if you don’t know the drum fill is coming.
That right there is the difference between a “clean” and an “unclean” reading. There’s still a prevailing sense in our artistic culture that works should be allowed to speak on their own terms, and that any assumptions we bring in from the outside make an Ass out of U and Art. Because of this, the prelapsarian experience where you don’t know the drum fill is coming, gets the positive label “clean,” and the other reading, where you already know all there is to know about the song, is considered “unclean.” But we could very well ask (as Stilwell does), which of these is more pleasurable, which is closer to the artists’ own experience of the work, and which they intended the audience to experience. After all, the person or people who decided to put that song under that scene must have known the song, and are therefore definitionally incapable of experiencing the naive, “clean” reading of the scene. So surely the “unclean” reading is to be preferred, right? But then again, mystery writers are definitionally incapable of being shocked by their own plot twists, and no one has ever used that as an argument against the “clean” reading of whodunits.
I think Stilwell’s theoretical construct captures something quite profound about our experience of art, and not just when it comes to hearing popular songs on film soundtracks. It’s not a voluntary decision: your reading will be clean or unclean based on your prior knowledge, and there’s nothing you can do (barring invasive and questionable surgery) to unlearn something once you’ve learned it. But it’s useful to ask ourselves, when we talk about pop culture, write about pop culture, or form opinions about the relative strength and weakness of particular works, whether we should be describing our deepest, most well-informed, most “unclean” readings of the text, or whether we should be trying, as much as possible, to recapture the relatively “clean” experience of our first viewing. Or perhaps we should try to filter out all the specialist knowledge we brought to the table even at that very first viewing, describing instead the experience of an ideal, completely unspoiled reader, an experience which of course was not our own?
The concept could be expanded. In addition to the “clean” reading, we might posit the “sterile” reading — cleaner than clean — in which a person watching the “Love on a Real Train” sequence not only doesn’t know “In the Air Tonight” specifically, but also doesn’t recognize Phil Collins’ voice. Most people, even if they don’t know the drum fill is coming, will recognize the song’s general context (it must be either a late Genesis song or a Phil Collins song, right?), and recognize that it is a preexisting pop song rather than a newly composed piece of film music. A sterile reader would approach the song without that knowledge. A sterile reader would not even realize that rock-like music (with a steady drumbeat, electric guitars, and so on), is unusual in a film music context and marks the film as edgy and youth-oriented. In fact, a truly sterile reader would not understand that there are such things as “films” or “music,” or that there are recognized ways of using one in the context of the other. This seems like an absurdity, of course: a truly sterile reader would have to be a Martian — or if you like we can imagine some neolithic noble savage type, striding forth from out the forest primeval to watch Tom Cruise on Netflix streaming. But if you think about it, we were all there at some point. Our first experience of music usually comes before we’ve mastered the language to give it a name, but there is a first exposure nevertheless. And while a truly sterile reading might be an impossibility, it’s worth recognizing that there are multiple degrees of clean.
On the other side of the equation, I like to distinguish between readings that are merely “unclean,” and those that are “filthy.” The difference is as follows: it is possible that the people who made Risky Business wanted us to be thinking about Phil Collins, the rock star, when we watch that scene, because that experience was presumably also their own. It is BY NO MEANS possible that they wanted us to think of Phil Collins, the treacly ballad-writer who robbed Trey Parker and Matt Stone of a best song Oscar, because that happened decades after the scene was filmed. (By the same token, it’s impossible that the makers of Risky Business wanted us to constantly be thinking about Tom Cruise’s status as a scientolopologist and couch-jumping loon.) There is a difference between prior knowledge which the artists might possibly have wanted us to bring to the table, and knowledge which they could not have assumed in their audience because they didn’t have it themselves. This is the difference between an unclean reading and a filthy one. But note that I choose the word “filthy” only as an extension of “unclean.” I don’t mean to attach a pejorative status to this kind of reading — again, it’s not a voluntary choice. It’s impossible to read Richardson’s Pamela without recognizing that… well, these days Richardson is pretty hard going in any case. But take one of those 1980s-1990s romance novels called A Highwayman’s Passion or Tender Heaves the Bosom: it’s impossible now to read that kind of book without recognizing that the gender politics are deeply messed up, even as we recognize that (in Richardson’s case, at least), it’s a knowledge that the author could not possibly have shared, at least not in full.
So far I’ve been leaving the reader’s conscious choices out of the equation. But if we bring that aspect back in, we need to expand the model to account for two more kinds of reading. One of these, which I like to call the “ascetic” reading, is already suggested in Stilwell (although she doesn’t give it a name of its own). The ascetic reading involves a conscious effort on the viewer’s part to suppress the influence of their prior knowledge on the aesthetic experience. It involves a vow of critical chastity, more or less, or better yet one of those creepy born-again-virgin ceremonies. Personally, I don’t find this kind of thing particularly useful — or rather, I don’t find it much fun. Part of OTI’s mission statement is the promiscuous mixing of various bodies of knowledge: if I was after an intellectually “pure” artistic experience of any kind, I doubt very much that I would be writing for this site. Still, you do see this kind of thinking and writing on a pretty regular basis from professional film critics, and I do use it myself when I try to decide whether I should recommend media property X (say, the Game of Thrones books) to friend Y (say, Belinkie).
The counterpart of the “ascetic” reading is the “perverse” reading. It’s not quite a mirror-image. The ascetic reading involves pretending not to have relevant knowledge that you do have, so you’d think the the perverse reading would involve pretending to have relevant knowledge that you don’t have, right? Not so. One does see that happening often enough, but I think it has more of an effect on our interpersonal relationships with other readers than it does on our meaningful experience of the text. Rather, the perverse reading involves willfully deciding that a given body of knowledge is relevant to a certain text even while knowing that it is in no way relevant. Or perhaps it would be better to say, applying a certain body of knowledge to a text NOT because it is relevant (which it isn’t), but simply because it is INTERESTING. Or better yet, claiming that interest alone is relevance enough. When I watch that scene in Risky Business, I am involuntarily reminded of Phil Collins’s and Tom Cruise’s later careers (making my reading filthy). If I then consciously extend that, and start poking around for evidence to support the claim that, for instance, the me-first impulse that Risky Business celebrates in the form of sex and capitalism is exactly the same impulse that led to both of these artists to become walking late-night talkshow punchlines, at that point the reading becomes perverse. You can’t quite make up whatever crap you want — the reading you come up with still has to be interesting, at least to you, or else it’s just pointless nonsense. But you’d be surprised by the kind of thing that you find interesting, if you keep an open mind.
And since I find the ascetic reading particularly pointless for the OTI community, it’s probably unsurprising that I’ve come to think of the perverse reading as more or less our raison d’être. Welcome, fellow perverts. I hope you enjoy your stay.