Why do we need Lilith Fair anymore?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 28 2010 4:15 PM

Why Do We Need Lilith Fair Anymore?

The all-girl music festival is outdated.

Thirteen years ago, I heard the best news of my 15-year-old life: An all-female music fest was coming to San Diego. By that time, I'd scouted out every Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, and Shawn Colvin show within reasonable driving distance. My father even scalped Melissa Etheridge tickets for me and my sister as a Hannukah gift. But the opportunity to see all of these musicians in one place felt like the pinnacle of my angst-ridden teenage existence.

Lilith Fair—the brainchild of McLachlan, Nettwerk Music Group's Dan Frasier and Terry McBride, and talent agent Marty Diamond—toured the country from 1997-99, and, excepting Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (a lesbian-centric feminist music and culture fest founded in the late '70s), was the first mainstream, all-female music gathering in the country. "In the radio world—you know, [I was told] you can't play two women artists back to back, you can't put two women on the same bill, people won't come," McLachlan told the Advocate. According to Lilith's Web site, the fair attracted more than 1.5 million fans during the course of its three-year run.

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Eleven years later, Lilith artist Paula Cole's Dawson's Creek theme song has faded into the background, and a lot has changed since that first bright-eyed celebration. Considering that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga reign at the top of the Billboard charts, women don't seem to be struggling for recognition in the music industry. So when I heard that Lilith was back for a second go-around, my reaction was: Do we really need Lilith Fair in 2010?

Just like the earth-tone Best of Lilith Fair 1997–1999 album cover art—a naked biblical figure poised beneath flowery, cursive lettering—Lilith had this kind of ethereal, goddess feel to it. But it wasn't the sheer convergence of women that made Lilith such an estro-fest. It was the genre of music it showcased: the brand of cry-yourself-to-sleep-at-night singer/songwriters. "We think of the nineties in terms of grunge and riot girl music and on the other side the mainstreaming of hip-hop, but it was also a real flowering of female singer/songwriters," says Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers. "[Women like Colbie Caillat or Kate Voegele] might not garner the attention that Lady Gaga does, but I'm sure they had an easier time of it because of Sarah and Tori and Tracy."

That, even more than the all-female factor, made Lilith such an easy teasing target. (Headlines like "Breastfest" and the Onion's "Lilith Fair Performers, Attendees Achieve Largest-Ever Synchronized Ovulation" come to mind.) "I was all onboard for an all-women fest, and I think its mainstream scope was interesting," says Marisa Meltzer, author of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, "but I was not onboard with the musical aesthetic. I associated Lilith with my mom's generation. I definitely wasn't going to monetarily show my support of the cause."

Others complained about its lack of diversity, both musically and racially. Later, the organizers added a handful of R&B artists such as Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill to the '98 and '99 versions; for the most part, though, it was still a bunch of white chicks strumming their acoustic guitars.

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