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 question is, How long will it be before Lilith, like Lollapalooza, exhausts its clientele? McBride thinks it's got a few years in it, in part because of its rotating schedule, which sees headlining acts changing every few nights. Such a schedule allows acts to do their own solo summer tours as well as appearing with Lilith Fair; additionally, by rotating markets, the same artists can go out in different regions year after year. Seventy-five percent of this year's artists played Lilith Fair last year; next year, McBride hopes, 80 percent will return. "By not letting anyone repeat and by using the same bill all summer," explains McBride, "Lollapalooza just narrowed its field of talent too much."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gardner speculates that such thinking will actually be Lilith's downfall.

"This year will be good for them," he says, "but if you keep recycling bands like that, you're going to get pretty stale."

Circumstances are already pointing toward Gardner's conclusion. McBride speculates that next year's Lilith Fair might not feature McLachlan at every date, but that "Ani, Alanis, or Jewel will step to the fore to be its host or leader." But why should they? Although Lilith Fair likes to emphasize the extreme camaraderie of its artists--a camaraderie so great, they imply, that artists prefer playing on it to any other gig--there is no reason to suppose that anything other than self-interest really puts these women together.

Crow, for example, has withdrawn from five dates on this year's Lilith Fair, citing exhaustion. Jewel, probably the biggest act of this type today, is currently filming a movie, but, like Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco--two other artists whose music would fit right into this day's work--she would probably prefer to pocket the entire night's take by touring on her lonesome anyway. There is no question that big artists make less than they would playing their own gig: To be on it is more a matter of, as Ray Farrell says, "forging alliances." Like during wartime, except without the war or the time.

Perhaps the biggest gripe that Lilith's detractors have about the bill is that it merely perpetuates certain institutionalized industry biases about women. Last year's lineup was criticized for being too white and too young and too pretty. This year sees the inclusion of older acts (Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Cowboy Junkies, Raitt) and many African-American performers (Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Neneh Cherry, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello are all main-stagers in various cities).

While diversity in age and race is all well and good, it can hardly be said that it translates into diversely innovative, diversely thoughtful, or even diversely good music. Overall, the type of "female" music being purveyed at Lilith is, not to put too fine a point on it, dull as ditch water, the type of folk-based fare that male critics smugly like to term weepy, emotional, and--in a cliche that has dogged reviews of many an artist on this bill--"like pages torn from a teenage girl's diary."

Where, some critics ask, are the Breeders, the Polly Jane Harveys, the Bjsrks? Where is Patti Smith? Lil Kim? Foxy Brown? Team Dresch? The Fastbacks? The Muffs, L7, Babes in Toyland, Etta James? And given Lilith Fair's confused policy of booking bands like the Cowboy Junkies--whose guitarist Michael Timmins writes all the songs for his sister Margo to sing--where is, say, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, or Portishead? Where, for that matter, is Pulp?

According to booking agent Diamond, these people are absent because, for the most part, they want to be. "Garbage passed again. Bjsrk passed again. Patti Smith has done Lilith Fair--she was at our first date ever--and it's just not a format she feels comfortable with. Joni Mitchell--we're trying for her. We asked Annie Lennox. We asked an incredibly wide gamut of artists."

One left-of-center band that Lilith Fair did ask was the aforementioned Sleater-Kinney. The group declined because, according to Brownstein, its members "just don't feel part of what's happening at Lilith. It seems like they haven't really given credit to women in an independent milieu who have organized a lot of female-only shows for years."

Brownstein also says that she and her bandmates didn't get the feeling that Lilith Fair really knew who they were or what their music sounded like.

"If they did, why did they stop with us?" she says. "They're not going to ask the Donnas or someone, even though that would be awesome. I don't even think our music would be appreciated there."

Lilith Fair's organizers might pretend to disagree, but it's hard to imagine that they really do.

"You have to be mindful of your audience," McBride says. "Some of the people who came to Lilith Fair last year might be willing to embrace much harder, more difficult acts; they might be open-minded and get off on it. But some might not. It comes down to putting bums in seats. It's getting harder and harder to sell tickets, but we think we're providing good value for the dollar."

McBride also says that one of Lilith Fair's priorities is helping to break new artists. To that end, organizers put together a local-band showcase on the so-called "village stage" (read: third stage). Many of the artists who will be appearing on this stage were picked by contests put on by local promoters and radio stations, the idea being--according to their promotional spots--that any girl who'd been singing and writing songs in her bedroom might wind up on Lilith Fair, a putative star.

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