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.
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.
Unlike that hippie-dippy, Mother Earth aesthetic that embodied the original Lilith, it’s hard to pinpoint the new Lilith brand. I’ve seen little to no marketing efforts, and the imagery on the Web site—just girly enough dark pink, purple, and saffron, with abstract graphic design—is, perhaps intentionally, entirely unmemorable.
The mission statement claims that the fair is “breaking down boundaries by uniting iconic and up-and-coming female artists across all genres into one musical community.” And indeed, the new iteration of Lilith opens its arms to an eclectic array of musicians. A handful of artists such as the Indigo Girls and Beth Orton return, but they’re posited alongside quirky, indie folk rocker Cat Power, the-David-Bowie-of-hip-hop Janelle Monae, and poptastic agent provocateur Rihanna. There seems to be no nostalgia for the original Lilith, and it is clearly aiming for a broader audience—from the suburban mom who hauls into town for Emmylou Harris to her 14-year-old-daughter who’s just dying to see Beth Ditto. Even Meltzer has come around. “It speaks to my interest. I would never go to a Ke$ha concert, but I am absolutely psyched to see the Bangles and Sia and Sarah. It would be hard for me to think of something that would make me more giddy.”
So it might be fun, but what “boundaries” is it breaking down? Lilith today isn’t going to promote a particular genre of music (other than McLachlan’s new album). It’s not going to create a new female-dominated category of singers. It doesn’t have an organic, homegrown feel anymore. Most of the acts are already pretty well-known. It’s not all that different than Lollapalooza, only the acts happen to be all-female. The all-girl band is still somewhat of a novelty, but so what? Maybe that’s a relic of a certain moment in musical history, like the boy band.
The fair is doing some fine community work—raising $10 million for charity with the tours in the 1990s, for example, and partnering with a green company to reduce its carbon footprint. But these are the kind of top-down, corporate efforts that any fair would do these days. They are still not the product of a genuine musical movement.
But truth be told, I’m pretty sure I will still go. As a late-twentysomething, I thought my Lilith days were long gone. I wasn’t even so much uninterested as I was embarrassed by the suggestion of attending the fest—before I looked at the lineup. I don’t want to relive the past, nor do I feel that Lilith will show me what the musical future holds (although I wouldn’t be surprised to find the next Tegan and Sara on a second stage). But neither will Lollapalooza. There’s no reason Lilith should have to be any more culturally groundbreaking than any other music fest. I’m just excited to see Cat Power and Mary J. Blige and La Roux all in one place. May I’ll even pick up one of those angel-winged-rib-cage-cum-guitar-logo concert T-shirts just to prove I was there.