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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

The only problem is that to many rock fans--this fan included--danger and mystery constitute the deepest appeal of live rock and roll; it is only those moments when a show teeters on the brink of chaos and ruin that give rock music its power to change minds and move souls. I appreciate well-sung hits as much as the next person, but it was the sight of thousands of kids tearing up the seats at Riverfront stadium near Cleveland during a 1992 Ministry set that will stick in my mind as emblematic of an era; the sound of Fugazi shrieking "She did nothing to deserve it!" on their anti-rape anthem "Suggestion" that reminds me of my hallowed youth.

After all, these are the moments that, as the French novelist Colette once said, "we so lightly called physical," the moments that shake and roil our souls. One can't help but wonder what, at Lilith Fair, is supposed to take the place of that catharsis--for without catharsis comes boredom and, eventually, a coma. And then the body has to be jerked back to attention by some kind of adrenaline-creator, be it testosterone, or violence, or just reality in all its dirty glory. The music of Sarah McLachlan and Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Merchant and all the other lilies may do a lot of things for a lot of people, but somehow I don't think it's going to do that.

Lilith Fair takes place August 1 at Starplex Amphitheatre. Scheduled to appear on the main stage, beginning at 5:40 p.m., are Liz Phair, Erykah Badu, Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant, and Sarah McLachlan. On the second stage, beginning at 4:20 p.m.: Ebba Forsberg, Diana King, and Lucinda Williams. On the Village Stage, beginning at 3:30 p.m.: franklySCARLET, Talking to Animals, and Drugstore.

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