Fair game

Feminism posing as trend, profit masquerading as activism, and a bunch of really bad songs: Why Lilith Fair isn't so fair at all

On May 29, Joni Mitchell played a two-hour concert to a tiny audience on a secret soundstage in the heart of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California. The show was being filmed to promote her upcoming album Taming the Tiger, named after a saying that compares showbiz to a tiger: "It's harder to catch and harder to tame." Clearly nervous, the stately 55-year-old played number after number of dense and oddly tempoed songs, while an audience of friends and family sat by raptly, trying to absorb her peculiar vision.

Near the end, the singer-songwriter currently known as Jewel quietly rose from her seat and tiptoed forward. Was she going to join Mitchell onstage for a rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi," the song with which Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan often encores? No. Jewel was rising to leave. Apparently the latter--who exudes the aura of a younger, more beautiful Joni from every pore of her golden body--has a tame tiger ready and waiting at the gate, while Mitchell, 30 years her senior, is still up there, desperately cracking her whip.

There's something wrong with this picture, and it's not just its faint overtones of the movie All About Eve. After all, it is 1998, and folky women artists such as Jewel have lately garnered a newfound cachet in the music industry. Mitchell, who's basically served as the genre's archetype, should be experiencing a renaissance. But the new breed hasn't gotten its clout thanks to Joni, who will be lucky if Taming The Tiger goes gold and who can't even get Jewel to sit still for two hours. No, the younger women can credit much of their power to Lilith Fair, the summer-long all-day festival tour that bills itself as a "celebration of women's music."

It's not just an awkward phrase; it's an awkward concept. Semantically speaking, there's really no good way of saying in English what Lilith Fair wants you to know about itself, i.e., that it is a festival featuring artists who are of the female gender. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be "profitable": Last year, it grossed $16.4 million in tickets sales, beating out Ozzfest ($13.1 million), Lollapalooza ($9.4 million), and H.O.R.D.E. ($6.4 million), and it looks to be more successful this year.

But while its financial achievements are clear, the idea of Lilith Fair still rankles. Why separate female acts--and audiences--as if they were antithetical to all the others? According to nominal founder Sarah McLachlan, writing in the new book From Lilith Fair to Lilith Fair (available for purchase at your nearest Starbucks), the festival was created for many reasons, including "the joy of sharing live music; the connection of like minds, the desire to create a sense of community that I felt was lacking in our industry...the desire to make things better." In fact, the real reason--the only possible reason--that Lilith Fair has billed itself this way is the same reason that other festivals separate their audiences into broad demographic categories: in order to create a kind of sonic class-system via race, socio-economic status, or gender.

Such an idea, however, is not exactly altruistic. Whatever McLachlan may say about "celebrating femaleness," Festival Rock is not so much about community and bonding as it is about marketing: the gathering together of groups of like-minded people--in this case women--who can then be sold in aggregate a certain bill of goods. As a result, Lilith Fair may be profit-heavy, but beyond that it's feminism-lite, rock-lite, and quality-lite. It tries to be many things, but ends up being business as usual: a host of women desperately trying to capture the attention of a vapid marketplace via a gender-specific gimmick.

It is, in short, a total crock of shit.
Put another way, meet the new boss, same as the old boss, only a lot prettier than the old boss. Meet Sarah McLachlan, a 30-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter who is currently intent on re-creating the music industry in her own image. (And who also believes so passionately in her "revolution" that she refused to be interviewed about it for this story.) McLachlan has been touring and recording for 10 years now, and though her 1994 album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy went platinum over the course of two years, it has long been McLachlan's contention that she was discriminated against by radio (who wouldn't play two women artists back to back), then by concert promoters (who wouldn't book two women artists on the same bill), and finally by such festivals as H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza, which didn't include her type of music on their bills.

So, like Perry Farrell before her, McLachlan--with the help of a team consisting of Canadian-label head Terry McBride, tour manager Dan Fraser, and booking agent Marty Diamond--took the situation into her own hands. McBride, the founder of Nettwerk Records (an independent label that has released records by Severed Heads, Skinny Puppy, and Chris and Cosey) is also McLachlan's manager; he discovered her fronting a band in Halifax when she was a teenager, signed her as a solo artist two years later, and has developed her talent ever since. He gives McLachlan much of the credit for inventing Lilith Fair, but there are no flies on McBride: When the former came up with the idea of an all-woman tour in late 1996, the latter gave her four weeks to come up with a name in order to trademark it in time for 1997.

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