Caroline Hagood’s novel Filthy Creation is a stunning and thought-provoking coming-of-age story.
Filthy Creation pretty much wouldn’t exist without the Sex Pistols song “Anarchy in the U.K.” Not only does the song appear in the book, but I was listening to it obsessively when I got the idea for this novel about Dylan, a teenage girl who embraces a wild and radical relationship to art in the face of loss. The rebellion aspect is key because she must break out of the prison that is being a teenage girl. On her quest, she tries various ways of locating extreme forms of liberty and invention. Along the way, to name just a few: she looks to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, jumps into the East River, dons a monster mask, and experiments with boxing painting.
The songs on this list formed a key mental/musical soundtrack for me as I wrote this admittedly very weird book. Perhaps more importantly, these were the songs I envisioned Dylan listening to as she embarked on her creative odyssey. These are anthems of love, loss, art and doing it your own way. These songs ask that you break with what you thought you knew about what a girl is, what the world is, what art is. In short, please only listen to this playlist with the volume turned all the way up, alone, naked, dancing like it hurts.
“Anarchy in the U.K.” – Sex Pistols
The main character of Filthy Creation, Dylan, listens to this song as she walks down the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront with her crush, Shay. Shay is the first girl Dylan has ever liked, and this confuses her. Most importantly, to Dylan, Shay, is the ultimate art monster, living for her art and pursuing it with a wildness that’s chilling. They’ve just smoked weed together and Dylan visualizes a parallel Brooklyn opening all around them, as Shay inserts an earbud for her, and turns the volume to high. Suddenly, all Dylan hears is, “I wanna be Anarchy in the city How many ways to get what you want,” as Shay gets ready to perform an unbelievable act in the name of awakening creativity and pushing Dylan into a high stakes game of art at any cost.
“Lola” – The Kinks
This is a song I listened to a lot as I wrote. I pictured it meaning something to Dylan through me, as though this imagined girl could absorb the Kinks by some kind of literary osmosis. It’s a song about gender play and fluidity, breaking out of the bounds of however we’re supposedly viewed according to this completely random world of categories we inhabit. Dylan is in the midst of realizing how linked things like gender and genre are, how much we need to break out of these ancient ways of envisioning people and artworks. Well, she’s in high school, so she wouldn’t put it that way; maybe something more along the lines of, in the language of her treasured Sex Pistols: “I wanna be anarchy Know what I mean?”
“Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen
Put it this way: if this novel were a movie, this song would play at the climax. I realize “Hallelujah” has become shorthand for a sort of reaching after profundity, and that the John Cale version has also appeared in Shrek (which will make some love or hate it all the more); but none of that changes what happened to me the first time I heard it. It shattered everything song-related that had come before, which is what the best song (and the best art) does. I’m very much a lyrics person when it comes to music, admiring this heightened form of what words alone (without musical accompaniment) can do. To me, the opening lyrics of “Hallelujah” gloss perfectly the creative process. The idea of this mere mortal composing something of such splintering power that it impresses an immortal is so thrilling to me. I want to hear this secret chord whose catastrophic beauty flummoxes its creator and so pleases his Lord. Let’s be honest, I (and all writers) also want to create this chord myself one day, and so does my thirsty teenage art monster.
“Lonesome Whippoorwill” – Hank Williams
In the book, Dylan gets her love of old music from her father, who also teaches her how to roll an old-school joint. He’s wise enough to know that marijuana and music have always been two peas in a pod. When Dylan’s dad gets sick, there’s a scene where she helps him shower while he wears his bathing suit. In between making inappropriate cancer jokes, he sings “Lonesome Whipoorwill.” Dylan asks him to please stop joking around about something so serious, but at the same time she gets it—because it’s just how she’d handle being at death’s door: through humor and the dark, off-kilter sense of humor she shares with her dad.
“Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen
I imagine Dylan finding her crush, Shay, in Suzanne: “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there.” Shay’s a real girl in the story but she’s also an ancient figure: the darkness that calls out to characters in the forest, and particularly to artists, drawing them away from society and the urge to fit in. But what Dylan seeks is the anti-society, the anti-fitting in: a Shay, a Suzanne, a glorious art monster who summons her away from socialization, and shows her how to bang paint onto canvas until her hands feel close to bleeding, but in a good way.
“Sweet Jane” – The Velvet Underground
This song plays in the book after Dylan (whose mother’s name is Jane) has run away from home. She’s staying at her art teacher’s house, and she’s getting ready to create that great big work of art she’s been waiting for all her life. She uses her teacher’s method of boxing painting to find it in her to make the kind of painting she has always pictured being able to produce. She misses her mom so much as she puts on the boxing gloves and gets ready to put all of this onto the canvas. When I discovered that Lou Reed created that central riff by playing as loudly as he could through an amplifier, it just seemed so right.
“Loaded” – The Velvet Underground
Right after the previous scene, which takes place against the backdrop of “Sweet Jane,” “Loaded” comes on. At this point, Dylan’s pounding the canvas with her paint-soaked boxing gloves, as all the madcap things that have recently happened play in her head. If there’s a before and after artistic moment for her, it’s this one. The work she creates while listening to this song will be the first she can really be proud of, and submit to the same college art scholarship that sent her talented mother to art school all those years ago—before she dropped out to have Dylan.
“Bonnie and Clyde” – Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg
Book dork that I am (and that Dylan is), I love that these lyrics invite you to read further about Bonnie and Clyde in the form of this song: “You heard the story of Jessie James, Of how he lived and died, If you’re still in need of something to read Here’s the story of Bonnie & Clyde.” I picture Dylan listening to this song and seeing herself and Shay as Bonnie and Clyde. Not only do Dylan and Shay perform actual break-ins in the novel (in the name of finding Dylan’s biological father), but Dylan also longs to embody the rebel spirit, as Shay does. In many ways, Dylan finds that the rules of the world weren’t built for her. Where does a girl fit in the world? A girl artist? She longs to float outside the boundaries of definition. And can you really blame her?