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

If the Dallas winner, picked in April, is any indication, we're not exactly talking plucked from hopeless obscurity here: franklySCARLET, the self-proclaimed "alt-pop" sister duo of Kim and Kelly Brown, has been together for years, releases its own albums, and has already opened for the likes of David Bowie, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, and NRBQ--hell, they're the perennial bridesmaids.

Lilith's desire to break young female artists seems sincere, although anyone who's suffered through one of those Ticketmaster or Grammy showcases can tell you that these "winners" probably won't break much more than guitar strings. The conceit is also a bit strange: If McLachlan is indeed set on trying to recreate the industry in her own image, such a goal seems self-defeating in the long-run, as people--women, even!--tend to overdose on any one "category" of music if it doesn't change. Lilith Fair may yet manage to burn them out even faster.

Meanwhile, many musicians and insiders declare not that it's a good time for women to get signed in the industry, but that it's a bad time for anybody to get signed, male or female. Mare Winningham, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of a singer in the movie Georgia, has been trying for years to play one in real life; she just inked a contract with Razor and Tie after a decade of shopping her tapes. Winningham may finally have benefited from Lilith Fair's ethos, but she says that over the past decade, the comment she heard most often was that "the market was inundated with female singer-songwriters," she says. "Which always seemed kind of odd to me--they wouldn't say that about men, and surely there were more of them."

It's hard to see how Lilith Fair's boost of similar-sounding artists is going to help that situation. The truth is, as Johnette Napolitano points out, there are just as many young songwriters being ignored or discriminated against because of their age or looks or lack of juice as there are because of their gender.

"If you're good, you'll get noticed," Napolitano opines, voicing the diehard belief of many a signed act. "It doesn't matter whether you're male or female."

That said, A&R reps never met a trend they didn't like--remember the glut of grunge errata (Paw, Cell, Tad, and on and on) they peddled just a few years ago? Didn't think so. For them, as with Lilith itself, signing young women now has less to do with feminism and more to do with seizing a fleeting moment of God-given opportunity. The common bond between most of the Lilith Fair artists and the industry that supports them is a kind of late-'90s pragmatism--the desire to belong to a marketable group ethic rather than to pursue one's own dream. How quickly such an artist can be reduced to a caricature.

On one hand, it's nice to know that "feminist" is no longer synonymous with the word "dyke." But it's disturbing to think it's now just another marketing demographic, worth so much per thousand believers to all-powerful advertisers such as Starbucks, Biore, or Tower. Somehow, rather than making a meaningful change in people's attitudes toward women, McLachlan's success with Lilith Fair has instead turned the idea into a trend. And trends, alas, have a tendency of fading out.

Warner Bros. A&R rep Rob Cavallo is someone who should know about trends: He's the man who signed Green Day. Just before that, he signed The Muffs, a bi-gender band, to a three-record contract, which has just been terminated--thus putting to rest the blanket theory that it's "such a great time to be a woman in the record industry right now." Unless, of course, you fit into the Lilith mold.

Cavallo says now that he'd never have pushed the Muffs on a Lilith-type bill, but he adds, "ever since Lollapalooza and even before, managers have been trying to market bands and get exposure by tailgating on other bands' success. The big coup used to be opening for the Rolling Stones; now it's getting on Lilith Fair. And it makes sense, because if you're that type of singer, you're guaranteed to be in front of 15,000 people per night, 90 percent of whom are the type who might like your music."

"The Muffs really seemed like they were happening in 1992, 1993," he adds. "It was like they were cusping a wave of that power-trio-loud-angry-vocals thing. We thought we could break them, that they had hits. Why didn't it happen? I don't know. But I do believe that every band has a responsibility to itself to be as innovative and forward-thinking, to be making a niche for itself in its own time and totally carving it out. I have to hand it to Perry and Sarah for doing that, and maybe what we're saying here is that the Muffs should have gotten together with their friends and done something similar."

Well, that's a pretty tall order: not just to capture your generation's zeitgeist via a song or a story, but to trap and tame it in a businesslike manner--to make it work for you and then take it on the road. It's what McLachlan--like Perry Farrell and John Popper and, for that matter, the Grateful Dead before her--has done with Lilith Fair, and done unbelievably well. The tour is well under way now. No fights or disasters have occurred thus far; no hissy fits have erupted; there are no junkies on this bill; and (reportedly) no backstage feuds or competitions. A good time is pretty much bound to be had by its constituents, to whom the danger and mystery of live rock and roll is anathema.

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