Amanda Hess and Marisa Meltzer went on Soundcheck to debate the merits of the Lilith Fair, with there being a rough divide between pro-Lilith Marisa and anti-Lilith Amanda. Which is oversimplifying things a bit—Marisa conceded that the line-up in many places was boring and Amanda certainly didn’t have a problem with a female-oriented music festival to bring more attention to female musicians—but that was the general divide. It should surprise no one that I fall on the anti-Lilith side of the fence. I heard somewhat interesting things about how they were getting away from the broomskirts and tambourines orientation of the previous Lilith Fair, but I didn’t find the New York line-up to be exciting enough to spend the money. This was basically Amanda’s argument, too—that it’s not about it being all female or somehow segregated that’s the issue. It’s that the content itself is the problem; even in places with more exciting line-ups, there’s such a hodge-podge of acts that it’s a problem from a marketing perspective. Concert festivals usually have an image and a set demographic they sell to, and “women” isn’t well-defined enough. As Amanda noted, the old Lilith Fair’s strength was that it had this wussy folk music image. Not something that I’d want to listen to, but at least it was something substantial you could market to fans of that music, and they did turn out. The “festival for every kind of woman” thing comes across to actual flesh-and-blood female music fans as “a festival where you have to sit through a lot of shit you don’t like to hear something you do like”, whatever that something is.
It doesn’t help that Sarah MacLachlan is at the center of all this. She could get away with it in the 90s, when she was a legitimate pop star churning out hits. The narcissism of closing the festival every night was less obnoxious when she could point to her big hits and say she was the sort of person who closes shows. But now? She has a lot of musicians who are way bigger or more important than her by any measure, and they’re opening for her. It’s distasteful, and makes it seem like the Lilith Fair is less about being pro-woman than being about making Sarah MacLachlan relevant again. To make the whole MacLachlan situation even uglier, she’s been running around trying to conceal the feminist origins of Lilith Fair and repudiating the feminist label. Soundcheck had examples of MacLachlan getting pissed at the idea of “politicizing” a festival of female musicians that was created in direct response to discrimination and prejudice aimed at women. What’s not political about discrimination and prejudice? She makes no sense, and playing the “I’m not a feminist, but” game is particularly ugly on a woman her age.
It’s also dishonest. I remember the Lilith Fair the first time around, and it was about as political as it gets. In fact, it was hard not to sympathize with the need for it. The late 90s were a time of vicious anti-feminist backlash in rock music, which culminated in the violence and rapes during the Limp Bizkit set at Woodstock ’99. Women on the radio were relegated to earnest folk-tinged music that maximized non-threateningness. A lot of the reason for this is pretty simple, which is that the early 90s flowering of alternative rock had finally been successfully co-opted by the corporate music industry, and most of the relatively independent radio stations had been bought up so that folks like Creed and Kid Rock could be passed off as “alt rock”. It was a dark time. Showcasing female musicians and pushing back against the dude-centrism of the radio was a good idea, but MacLachlan’s only response was basically to double down on the “women will stick to this corner fiddling on our acoustic guitars and leave the real rock music to the guys” mentality of the time. Still, the notion that MacLachlan wasn’t trying to make a feminist statement is pure bullshit. Much was made at the time of the name of the festival, named after a goddess figure who supposedly predated Eve and had to be rejected because she wanted equality with Adam. Claiming this historical villain as a hero is absolutely a feminist statement, and to suggest otherwise confirms every negative suspicion that some of us have always had about MacLachlan.
Hats off to Marisa and Amanda for not getting trapped by the most irritating aspect of any discourse around Lilith, which is the question of whether we “need” it or if there’s something good or not about a women’s music festival. The answer, if you’re pragmatic and understand history at all, is yes, and it will stay yes until women stop being marginalized in the larger music world. Highlighting a marginalized group’s talents and diversity is the best way to get them mainstreamed, and often the only way to do this is through having these events that set out specifically to perform that task. The question isn’t “Are women’s festivals a good idea?”, especially since they historically help instead of hinder mainstreaming women. The question is whether or not Lilith Fair is any good at what it sets out to do. The first incarnation failed in some major ways because it wasn’t threatening enough. Some men were saying women can’t rock and their answer was to showcase a bunch of women who don’t rock (or fill in your term for kicking ass—the most ass-kicking musicians I remember from the late 90s were Eryka Badu and the Dixie Chicks, who legitimately do challenge male dominance in the ways of rocking, even though they don’t play rock). This incarnation has a lot more women doing interesting things, and some more diversity both in terms of what kind of music is being played and who is playing it, but by running away from feminism, they yet again avoid offering a direct challenge. The task, in other words, is a legitimate one. Sarah MacLachlan just isn’t the person to pull it off.