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

The popularity of such music might suggest that readers and listeners finally became turned off by a media once wholly dominated by the unappealing figure of Courtney Love; surely most women have more in common with the gentle Sarah-Natalie-Erykah view of the world. But for a tour purportedly celebrating all women--not just the overwrought ones--too many perspectives are being left out. This can be partly attributed to good judgment: Despite the perks of being a Lilith fairy, not all women artists are interested in maximizing their audience via Lilith's particular constituency.

"I just feel like there's got to be another way to get to the people without having to subject ourselves to this giant money-making machine," says Carrie Brownstein, singer-guitarist for Sleater-Kinney, the highly acclaimed all-female trio from Olympia, Washington. "And I think it's important that not everyone get scooped up into the Lilith Fair vision, because it keeps women's music kind of contained into this one box. And that makes it easy for women's music to stay marginal."

Former Concrete Blonde singer and bassist Johnette Napolitano, who has a current record out on Island, is another lady with no aspirations to Lilith Fair whatsoever.

"I see it as kind of limiting," she says. "I'm like, 'You go, girls' and all that, but personally, I refuse to be put in a box. I don't really want to be categorized as a woman or white or American, even! To me, just being a woman is a turn-off of a platform. It kind of blows my mind how unwilling people are to evolve beyond that folky white-girl-thing still. If you create a static image for yourself, you'll become passe."

McLachlan's idea--to create a "space" for women performers--is hardly a new one. The Independent Pop Underground Festival of 1991 had a "girlie night," on which only girls were allowed to play. Perhaps more relevantly, the Michigan Womyn's Festival has for 23 years been putting on a five-day concert at which only women are welcome to play. At the MWF, the "women-only" stricture applies to more than just the performers: It uses female sound technicians, lighting technicians, roadies, stagehands, and truckers--even requesting that the shuttles that carry attendees from the airport assign their women drivers to the site. By contrast, many of the artists at Lilith Fair--Merchant, Sheryl Crow, Cowboy Junkies, Bonnie Raitt, etc.--use predominantly male backing-bands, and the tour itself employs men as road crew and sound and light techs, and in many other capacities.

Lisa Vogel is the founder and producer of the Michigan Womyn's Festival. Although she has not attended Lilith Fair, she has followed its progress in the press, and as an "interested observer," she says, "I think it's been a fabulous opportunity for women that's been somewhat missed." Though Vogel approves of Lilith Fair's stated goal of supporting women in the arts, her criticism is that the festival hasn't lived up to its mission statement.

"They've tried very hard to distance themselves from anything feminist or radical, and that seems kind of shameful to me," she says. "They're afraid of being called ballbusters, and the truth is, they would be called that. They have so much clout, but the industry is so deeply misogynist. This is a little window of time when there's some opportunity for some women, but they're walking pretty darn softly. They got where they are by the good graces of guys who are running the industry, and those good graces will fade if they don't play their cards right."

Besides, Vogel adds, "It's not like they're going, 'We're in reaction to something that's putrid.' It's more like, 'We want to get in on something that's putrid'--kind of like Motown did 20 years ago."

To a certain extent, they are succeeding. A clear-eyed view of Lilith Fair is that it's merely an attempt to consolidate a small cache of power in the touring industry--an attempt that has, at least for the moment, worked. McLachlan's 1997 record Surfacing has just gone triple platinum, no doubt boosted by the extremely high profile that Lilith Fair has given her (particularly in America); and because it has provided a forum for so many artists from so many labels outside the MTV-radio nexus, Lilith is currently the music industry's golden child and is likely to remain so.

Garrison Starr is a case in point. Starr is a new--and female--artist on Geffen who did some Lilith Fair dates last year, in advance of Eighteen Over Me, her major-label debut. Although it's impossible to quantify exactly how helpful it was, Starr's A&R rep, Ray Farrell, thinks that doing Lilith was a good boost to her career.

"We don't do Lilith for record sales," he says. "It's more to do with forging alliances with that audience, and with other artists on the bill--there's a lot of camaraderie backstage, a really good atmosphere."

Like many other A&R people, Farrell took care to get Starr some dates this year, which she will play acoustically, with just a couple of guys from Wilco backing her.

"Last year," he comments, "she had a lot of people crowding around the stage and coming up to her and asking about when her record was coming out and stuff like that. It was good for us to get her in front of that many people--and a lot easier for her than going out and opening for God Street Wine or someone."

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