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Lilith Fair’s creation story goes something like this: In 1996, concert promoters were reluctant to book two women together on the same tour. So Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan dreamed up her own music festival in which dozens of women-fronted acts would tour the continent, playing back-to-back. From 1997 to 1999, Lilith Fair drew 1.5 million fans, raised $10 million for women’s charities, and deposited an undisclosed amount into the pockets of McLachlan and the tour’s co-founder, record-industry impresario Terry McBride. McLachlan’s feminist act came at a convenient moment for women’s music—the recognition of feminism as a potentially lucrative marketing gimmick for mainstream audiences. More than a decade later, Lilith Fair is back. But who’s nostalgic for the festival that commodified feminism?
Lilith’s late-’90s run coincided with a more notorious exercise in packaging subculture for popular consumption—Woodstock ’94 and ’99. The Woodstock reboots sold the hippie aesthetic to a new generation, but the ethos of the sexual revolution didn’t exactly transfer—four rapes were reported at Woodstock ’99 before the festival erupted in flames, looting, and rioting. Festival attendees were angry about something, and it wasn’t the draft; some attributed the revolt to overpriced bottled water. MTV’s Kurt Loder later described the scene as a “concentration camp.”
Lilith Fair succeeded in insulating concertgoers from the masculine rage of Woodstock, but Lilith’s own brand of angst was similarly apolitical. “We’re just here to put on a great musical show and I think any social or political issues are secondary,” McLachlan told CNN in 1998. If anyone should be nostalgic for Lilith’s Feminism Lite, it’s me. When Lilith Fair started in 1997, I was 12. The mixtape to my tweens was filled with songs by festival artists—Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait,” Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One of Us,” Jewel’s “Pieces of You,” and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” the latter of which I played at high volume in defiance of my best friend’s parents, who thought the song was offensive to women. Cole taught me about destiny, Osborne taught me about philosophy, Brooks taught me how to embody both sides of the virgin/whore dichotomy for my boyfriend, and Jewel taught me how to miss him when he was gone. None of these women taught me that my anger could ever be political, or that I’d need my empowerment to survive more than just a bad breakup.
Lilith’s roster of white ladies strumming adult-contemporary angst was punctuated by some more subversive viewpoints, courtesy of Erykah Badu, Tegan and Sara, and the Indigo Girls, all of whom are returning for the resurgence. But for the most part, the Lilith sound was equally comfortable backing a romantic-comedy trailer, a high school graduation ceremony, or a weepy animal-cruelty ad. Somehow, an all-women festival didn’t sound very revolutionary when you could hear the same songs emanating faintly from the cereal aisle. Marketers had realized that they could sell feminism, as long as they focused on the aesthetics of “girl power” and away from the political rage of riot grrrl. The GOP realized the same thing a couple of elections later.
Twelve years after Lilith’s first act, you’d think we’d be ready not only to listen to women’s voices, but also to recognize that they have something to say. The first sign that Lilith Fair was becoming the Sarah Palin of music festivals dropped this spring, when the festival launched a “Choose Your Charity” campaign which allowed fans to select Lilith beneficiaries from a list of women’s organizations. Among the contenders were a number of crisis-pregnancy centers—outfits that lure in vulnerable pregnant women, lecture them against abortion, and provide free ultrasounds of cute fetuses. Lilith organizers eventually removed the CPCs from the list, not because of their anti-feminist politics, but because they failed to meet Lilith’s vague new list of inclusion “criteria”—criteria which also ended up disqualifying NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina from consideration. Lilith won’t be endorsing reproductive rights this year, but it will be lending support to low-calorie beverage mix Crystal Light, three forms of feminine hygiene products, and ABC, which ensures that the music tour “will be strongly represented across ABC television shows and online at ABC.com.”
Lilith Fair is a music festival for all women: women who are both pro-choice and anti-, who wear both tampons and panty-liners, who listen to music both interesting and boring. When Lilith rolls into its D.C. show at Merriweather Post Pavillion on Aug. 3, we’ll hear a smattering of it all—McLachlan will perform her earnest piano pieces alongside the minimalist indie of Cat Power, lesbian icons the Indigo Girls, and the rom-com sounds of Sarah Bareilles. In order to fill the seats, McLachlan will have to access something she claims the festival isn’t about: the political consciousness that comes with supporting women’s voices, whether we like them or not.