Overthunk: Clean and Unclean Reading. (Not about Romance Novels, much.)

SPOILER ALERT: This song has an awesome drum fill.


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.

18 Comments on “Overthunk: Clean and Unclean Reading. (Not about Romance Novels, much.)”

  1. Xamuel #

    If we’re gonna talk about a REALLY clean reading, we should drop the assumption that the reader knows what a train is.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Sure! Or whether they know what making love is. Well… It’s rated R and, the famous sliding around to Bob Seger scene aside, it’s kind of a slow movie. So I doubt many people too young to even know about sex will end up watching it. But there’s knowing and, like, King James knowing. You know? Somehow that particular scene always seemed to be addressed to an audience for whom sex is still primarily an idea.


  2. Jamas Enright #

    All that for a perverse punchline?

    How does this work with regards to re-scored music? Take, for example, the classic vault opening sequence in Die Hard, set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It’s a brilliantly done sequence, every note in tune with what we see on screen (the swell as the vault opens, the quickness as they are opening the boxes…). And yet, when you listen to Ode to Joy properly, it isn’t scored that way at all.

    I saw the movie before I properly heard the song, and had a dischordant experience when I did so. ‘That’s not how it goes.’

    Conversely, someone who was ‘unclean’ might well experience a dissonance when seeing a movie in which the song/music was changed. However, unless they know the piece is coming, they won’t know they are unclean, and thus have a ‘dirty’ experience.

    In the example here, what if the drums didn’t kick in, what would that be like?


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      “All that for a perverse punchline?”
      Yeeeeah, much effort for little payoff could also serve as our mission statement, sometimes. Or at least mine.

      These are good questions. The use of pre-existing classical music works exactly the same way, except it’s more likely to operate in reverse. (Just because people watch more movies than they listen to classical music.) Like, there’s a Mozart piano concerto, No. 21, that’s pretty routinely referred to — even by those who should know better, like the people who write up program notes — as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto because it was prominently featured in the movie of the same name. That’s totally a filthy reading. Whatever Mozart wanted to convey in the music (and some would argue that he wasn’t conveying anything, because that’s how music works when you listen to it “the right way”), he didn’t want you thinking of Elvira Madigan. The case with Die Hard is a tricky one… although you hadn’t actually heard the piece, had you sort of absorbed that melody enough from somewhere to recognize it as Beethoven, i.e. as a big, important piece of German classy art? I think the filmmakers were counting on at least that much knowledge. But I doubt very much they were hoping people would recognize that the piece as it appears in the film is wrong… most people wouldn’t have every detail of the original at their fingertips, and if I remember the scene (although it’s been a while) the deviations from the original don’t scream out “NOTICE ME!” (Now, the synthesizer reworking of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange, on the other hand…)

      But I dunno, maybe they did want people to notice — or at least included it as kind of an easter egg for the musically aware viewer. It kind of works if you think about it, right? The robbers are pretending to an old-world classiness, but underneath that surface they’re just thugs. So “Beethoven, but wrong” is kind of the perfect music for them.

      As for if they had left out the drum fill in the Risky Business example… Well that would be very interesting, wouldn’t it? To me, it would suggest that their sexual encounter wasn’t really going to go anywhere — that it too would be all buildup, no blowup. Sometimes filmmakers play on manipulations of pre-existing music quite consciously. When you get those acoustic David Bowie covers in The Life Acquatic, the difference from the original version is pretty much the entire point. One gets the feeling that Wes Anderson doesn’t really want people who don’t already know David Bowie songs to be watching his movies.


      • Jamas Enright #

        (Unsurprisingly I can’t find the Die Hard clip on YouTube.)

        I was aware of Ode to Joy as a piece before, and liked it in the movie, it was synced so well. (And the prosaic answer for why it was changed was more to fit dialogue than to suggest the robbers are wrong, but since this is supposed to be about Overthinking it…)

        When I finally heard Ode to Joy proper, and realised what had happened, I did feel a sense of disappointment, that movie makers would just change music around to fit their needs. No longer was music any kind of sacrosanct piece (of which clips might be played, but not rearranged), but something merely a tool for directors to abuse…

        Frankly, I don’t really trust music in movies the same way. I’m not a fan of incidental music, do I really need to be told about the scene in that way? Is the director so incompetent that the only way to save the moment is to layer on suitable mood sounds?

        Ultimately, while I still like it, because I loved it, knowing the real piece has ruined the brilliance of the Die Hard moment.

        And, in this case, having In The Air Tonight is an odd choice. If you listen to the lyrics (and especially if you are aware of the mythical tale of it), it’s a creepy, eerie song, and in some ways is more a background track to the bum on the train getting excited about them than the couple getting anywhere.


        • Mark #

          But doesn’t the bum on the train represent us, the audience? Aren’t we all just bums on trains, in a way?


    • JosephFM #

      It’s funny, because for similar reasons, I can;t hear that piece without on some level thinking of this scene, even though I’d heard Beethoven many times before seeing Evangelion…it’s been sullied for me by the association with something that, while unquestionably a lesser piece of art, was a much stronger cultural landmark of my adolescence.


  3. Mark #

    Nice post, Stokes. BTW, I’ve missed you on the podcast recently; you always seem to have a different and interesting take from the other guys.

    I read a sci fi short story over a decade ago where a guy invented a temporary, selective memory blocker, but he couldn’t find a good way to commercialize it until he teamed up with a theater owner to “clean” customers’ memories so they could re-watch classic movies. I always thought that’d be awesome; I would gladly pay 3D IMAX money to watch ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ or ‘The Matrix’ again for the first time.


  4. sprugman #

    Nice post. I’ve always thought that being able to work on all of those levels — perverse, clean, filthy, unclean, ascetic, etc. — was a hallmark of a great work.


  5. Jessie James #

    Interesting discussion. I did my thesis on Richardson’s Pamela, and now that I’m seeing it in the same context as Risky Buisness I’m feeling all kinds of perverse. Thanks for that. I see very little drawback to bringing twenty first century social/cultural awareness to older texts . For example, understanding contemporary gender politics (both in terms of Pamela’s status as a female servant and Lana’s as a sex worker) can allow the reader/viewer to broaden the meanings of texts that may otherwise pass out of cultural importance. Sure anyone who studies eighteenth-century literature with a focus on domestic fiction, and don’t we all do that in a way, may claim that Pamela and Lana are not so different. But only a true overthinker would make the Phil Collins connection (that’s the name of my new band btw).


  6. Goofy #

    Sounds like Carl Sagan’s apple pie. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe”


  7. Brian #

    Ok. FINALLY watched Risky Business. I laughed so hard my face and arms went numb! It’s amazing how exactly it all synches up. WTF! It actually synches up the more I resisted, all the way down to replacing the furniture and the phone tag with Guido, holy shit. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. Just wow.


  8. Dimwit #

    I can buy the argument for a version of clean for reading but not for viewing. Movies, except for early Lumiere stuff, have always needed a version of unclean. There are cultural memes, visual shortcuts and story processes that demand it.

    Yes, some cleanliness will increase the enjoyment of particular movies, The Sixth Sense is a superior clean flick, but others demand uncleanliness. The X-Men: in the run up to the climax, Wolverine complains about the new uniforms and Cyclops asks him, “What do you expect, yellow spandex?” A great line, perfect timing, and absolutely makes no sense to anything in the movie. The writers, director and producer assume a level of uncleanliness from the viewing audience.

    Even within these two extremes, the levels are not that far apart. You need to know about ghosts, hauntings, death, religion to some extent, parapsychology, single parent syndrome and that’s with a “clean” viewing experience. With the X-Men, levels up to filthy will be rewarded with a better movie experience.

    I am sure that anyone can pick two examples on the spectrum where each level will work but at all times there is an underlying base floor of uncleanliness that is required.


    • sprugman #

      I would say the same is true for reading. You need to know what a sword, a ring, and a wizard are in order to get much out of The Lord of the Rings whether it’s in book form or film.

      As for yellow spandex, the joke works for both clean and unclean viewers because yellow spandex is inherently funny. But it’s a richer joke if you get that it’s a dig on this.


      • sprugman #

        Oh, also, of course a 100% pure, clean reading is impossible.


Add a Comment