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

Both McBride and booker Diamond seem like sensitive guys who understand the inherent sexism of the industry. What's not entirely clear, though, is whether their involvement has much to do with trying to change such problems. At times, they sound as if theirs is a pretty pragmatic form of idealism.

"People said we could never have two women on the same bill back-to-back," Diamond boasts. "I asked one guy, 'Why not?' He said, 'Because women don't buy merch.' I'm like, 'Yeah, they don't buy ugly, black rock T-shirts with a band printed on it.' We make really pretty merch, and they buy it. We have jewelry [designed by McLachlan], knapsacks--stuff people would want. We're really mindful of the audience, and how to get them to participate."

Diamond's statements point to where Lilith Fair's heart is--and although there's nothing wrong with naked capitalism, when it's combined with feminism and empty love songs, the whole thing becomes hard to stomach. In terms of practical application, Lilith Fair's thesis merely restates the Spice Girls' degraded cry of "girl power" for a different age group.

But if the Spice Girls and Lilith Fair have taught us one thing, it's that here in the late '90s, that line of chat sells. Now in its second year, Lilith Fair has become an absolute behemoth of a tour. It enlists the services of more than 100 different acts, including 23 rotating headliners and 30 second-stagers, not to mention many more artists (some of whom garnered a slot by winning contests) who are appearing only on the "village stage."

Each day, 11 bands will perform, with each act being someone who can achieve more by being the sum of the whole than she could on her own. Consider some of the bigger names on the Dallas bill: You've got McLachlan, a star by herself but a sort of operatic Bill Gates with Lilith; Natalie Merchant, who's been pushing earnestness for years but has lately become little more than a footnote; Lucinda Williams and Liz Phair, two critics' darlings who get on radio only when they stand on one; Bonnie Raitt, the token fogy; and Erykah Badu, the hometown darling.

Separated from each other, most of these acts would be lucky to fill a large pair of shoes; together, they're a revolution. That collective mentality--the generous could call it Marxism in action, provided that they don't yet know the definitions of "gross receipts" and "merch"--may be the most threatening thing about Lilith Fair. And make no mistake: In spite of its aesthetic mildness, the Fair is threatening to some people. This is apparent from the criticism it has garnered. The mainstream press is full of cracks like "vulvapalooza," while the gay press is even more contentious, calling McLachlan homophobic because she hasn't allied herself with gay rights organizations or lesbians (and indeed, had the temerity to get married last winter). McBride bristles at such attacks.

"We're not about a feminist counter-revolution," he says. "We're about music, about celebrating women in music."

And everyone can get in on the action. Unlike Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair is not shy about enlisting corporate sponsors, including Levi's, Biore, Excite, Tower Records, VH1, Volkswagen, and Starbucks. Festival organizers say they are "very aggressive" in pursuing only "clean" companies--meaning, according to Lilith co-founder Diamond, ones that "are ecological and use sound labor practices and promote non-addictive substances [except for coffee]." The fact that Levi's recently announced it was resuming production in China, that well-known bastion of human-rights sensitivity, doesn't seem to faze them, however.

Despite some similarities--large and small--to its forerunner (both organizations donate one dollar of each ticket to various charities, for example), McBride claims that Lilith Fair had no thought of Lollapalooza when it began. He says it came up very organically. But the two tours have much in common, not least of which being that each was a reaction against a stringent radio-MTV situation that was ignoring a markedly popular type of band.

Still, Ted Gardner, Perry Farrell's manager and one of the original founders of Lollapalooza, questions whether Lilith Fair is as bold as it makes itself out to be.

"It's a great idea," he says. "They seem to have tapped into a need. But it's all about money. There's nothing controversial or groundbreaking about Lilith Fair's headliners. They're all credible, wonderful artists who have careers already. How are they changing the marketplace?"

Another similarity between Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair is that both organizations enlisted an artist-type figurehead to hype them. "The reason Lilith works," Diamond says, "and why H.O.R.D.E. worked, and Lollapalooza worked is because it was created by an artist. The sensitivity is different. Sarah really has a vision."

Gardner snorts.
"Lollapalooza was a collective," he says (pleads?). "One person can't come up with great ideas every year. Perry had his ideas, but we were a group that sat down and discussed things. If it had just been Ted, or just Perry, it would have been a very, very different lineup."

That, of course, is a very different picture than the one painted by Gardner and Lollapalooza during its first few years. Back then, Farrell was thrust forward much as McLachlan is--to pontificate about the tour in public. But McBride and Diamond seem sincere when they say that every act in Lilith Fair is chosen by McLachlan, and that each choice is based solely on an artist's music--what better way to explain the preponderance of winsome, fey, 27-year-olds playing heartfelt music about lurve. For every Missy Elliott (not in the Dallas show) and Liz Phair on the bill, there are 20 or 30 young women singing earnest, acoustic-based love songs--songs that are well within the realm of McLachlan's own style, not to mention within her audience's grasp.

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