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The den mother of the Lilith Fair, folkstress Sarah McLachlan, is trying to make eye contact with me. She wants to be as honest as her press releases suggest she is. I’m trying to believe it. Sitting down for a preshow press conference, McLachlan looks tired, right down to her blond zebra stripes, although she has had time to put on lipstick and eyeliner. And she answers all the usual tired questions. “Will there be men?” Yes, she says, as she told Entertainment Weekly. When the first perky reporter asks, “Where did the name ‘Lilith’ come from?” McLachlan tells us it’s this chick from a Hebrew myth who was, like, some pre-Eve feminist, as reported in a recent Time cover story and as McLachlan told Elle. When Joan Osborne makes the Lilith Fair = witches’ coven joke, McLachlan still laughs nervously, cupping her hands over her mouth, even though Joanie used that one in EW. It’s McLachlan’s usual earth-tone, soft-focus, up-with-femmes spiel. I want to like her earnest answers, I really do. But she stole my girlfriend.
I really want to bitch her out for turning my Cindy into a lesbian. I want to tell her about all those nights I spent lying in Cindy’s bed, getting no sex and having to listen to McLachlan’s songs over and over again. She should learn how Cindy would light candles around the room, chain-smoke Parliaments, get down to her Calvins, and alternately drain the lesbian subtext out of “Good Enough” and crank Amy Grant discs (Cindy is also born again). I would lie at the opposite end of the bed, waiting for Cin to make a decision: the Bible or bisexuality. Eventually, we would lie next to one another and separately masturbate, she dreaming of the girl at the pizza shop, I dreaming of her. Most of the time I just covered my ears. On this Tuesday afternoon, I cover my mouth. I can’t bring myself to dump on McLachlan: So Sarah, do you feel you contributed to the growing numbers of semester lesbians? What would she say? “Sorry? Have you visited our wellness sponsor, Nine West?”
I can’t look at her. Instead I focus on her arm flab. Yes, she has arm flab! (This is somehow reassuring.) And I ask about her complexion. Has she used any of the Bioré Pore Perfect samples the tour is handing out? “Yes, I know it’s quite disgusting,” she chirps. “It works! It takes all the nasties out of your pores. It takes out long things that look like stalactites.”
McLachlan knows her demographics. She knows that the kids coming to Lilith will need zit strips. You don’t have to listen too hard to get the message: It’s, like, girl power and good pores. The all-female-fronted tour has been carefully designed from the start. Although cover-story plugs in major mags sure helped, the fair is a crossover-happy A&R guy’s wet dream. McLachlan is accompanied by three stages’ worth of woman-led acts from a revolving roster that at Merriweather Post featured Jewel, Fiona Apple, the Cardigans, Joan Osborne, Juliana Hatfield, Jill Sobule, and Abra Moore. The lineup crosses so many playlists and encompasses so many dorm-room faves that it was bound to sell out. Even my mom wanted to go.
The setup is decidedly mainstream, very boutique feminismjust the sort of bait to attract wannabe sisters like Cindy. There were clues left all over D.C., if you looked hard enough. The participation of Borders, which routinely stocks large amounts of cuddly womancentric self-help texts, as a “learning sponsor” was just one. The absence of festival publicity in the gay community was another. All the real lesbians knew it was for tryout dykes. The Blade covered Sobule, but failed to mention the fair in its events calendar, and a curious letter raised the faux-lez issue, albeit rather indirectly, in the latest issue of Women in the Life. In the “Dear Dollie” advice column, “Butch in Distress” writes, “What’s up? Everywhere I go, I see femme girls hugged up and kissing femme girls. I’m a butch looking for love. If all the femme girls like femme girls, there will be no femmes for us butches. What’s a butch to do?” Thank God Butch in Distress didn’t go to the Lilith Fair.
There she would have found legions of curious-but-straight girls headed arm-in-arm down to the “village.” Swathed in greens, purples, and khakis, that area showed off such accouterments as jewelry in the shape of anti-depressants (get your Zoloft rings!), smelly candles and incense, hippie halter tops, shapeless hippie dresses, CDs from Borders, pro-abortion pamphlets, anti-rape pamphlets, and more hippie halter tops. Too bad most of the crowd was already wearing hippie halter tops.
Moving out of the village, the rest of Merriweather was essentially the same as usual except for the added side stages. Any political difference between Lilith and the usual guy-oriented festival show was reflected in the apportioning of portable toilets. Women’s potties outnumbered men’s potties by at least seven to one. Even so, women had to kick a few male butts out of the men’s bathrooms so they could squat in peace. That seemed to be about as far as Lilith’s feminism went. And there didn’t seem to be much respect for sisterhood in the hearts of the many male attendees.
The men either came because their girlfriends told them to or because they wanted to scout for babes. “There are a lot of nice ones,” reports Ken Blevins. “I’ll just wait ’til they get drunk and then [make] the move. We were at the Warped tour the other day, and there were hardly any there.”
Lilith hardly symbolizes a women’s movement or, as Time scribe Christopher John Farley gushed, “a coming-out party for the new sound,” perhaps heralding “a folk-pop revolution.” It suggests a backlashadmittedly commercial as well as stylistic and ideologicalagainst riot grrrl, PJ Harvey, and Courtney Love. The roles played by the women of Lilith are still restricted to the familiar ones; with the ratio of men to women performers at four to one (according to Jay Kreller, general manager of the women-only music distribution company Ladyslipper), the women may be front and center, but the boys still get the guitar solos. Away from Lilith, Fiona Apple is resigned to playing the waif and dancing in her underwear for her latest video. Jewel’s nipple-revealing Grammy outfit is now known as “the Dress,” and the Time article noted that she wears a “sexy yellow swimsuit” in her CD booklet photos. Meanwhile, Sheryl Crow has made shtick out of telling her audience she wants to perform naked. “I’ll tell you right now, if I cut my hair off and put in brown contact lenses, my career would end before it starts,” Apple tells Spin. “If I’m not pretty, I’m not going to make it. That’s the sad truth.” This is the positive message they are selling young girls? I guess the secret is in the pores.
Talking to women at the show, you would think they know the artists intimately. The fans have late-night listening sessions with their girlfriends to decode McLachlan’s lyrics. They run from abusive boys into the loving arms of Tori, Fiona, or Juliana. They listen to McLachlan before they go to bed. They put the candles out, put on Surfacing, and fall asleep in its warm, overproduced glow. They are the ones in the drama clubs. They feel they were misfits until Sarah came along. They grew up on Wall of Voodoo, New Order, and Naked Eyes and now live for Jewel. They came here to “smell the estrogen,” as one tells me. But that’s all. They dabble in lesbian sex, but they say they are definitely straight. Feminism is just in their fantasies. In line at the snack bar, one girl tells another, “I was, like, ‘Fuck you,’ and he keeps walking away, so I follow him, and I was, like, ‘Fuck you.’
“That was the best dream I ever had,” she adds.
The music itself is as confining as such dream scenarios. Wandering from stage to stage, I can’t take more than 20 minutes of each performer. I knew when I got here that it would hit me sooner or later, and listening to Apple, who is dressed like a Steel Wheels-era Mick Jagger, I begin to feel as if I’m inside Cindy’s freshman head. I remember when I took her to the Pride Rally. A just-came-out speaker said she felt “a little curious, a little bit confused, and a whole lot scared.” This became a running joke with us. But eventually Cindy clung to those words as if they were her mantra. Now, it just plays out in front of me with Fiona.
Those little words say a lot about Lilith. Much as Trent Reznor masks his pseudo-depression with industrial-goth thoughts, McLachlan and Co. hide their insecurities behind a faux-feminist façadeoh, and they dress in knee-length skirts and fake noserings instead of zippers and leather. When Apple gets angry, it’s usually after getting burned by a guy or when she’s feeling guilty about misbehaving in front of a boy. McLachlan rarely leaves her synth cocoon; she just sounds captive. When Jewel gets all worked up, it sounds pathetically naive, as on “Pieces of You”: “You say he’s a Jew, he’ll never wear that funny hat again/You say he’s a Jew as though being born were a sin/Oh Jew, oh Jew, do you hate himÉ” And you have to wonder why Village Voice rock critic Ann Powers went to the fair looking for little Darias and Lesbian Avengers. That’s not what Lilith is about. The music is all ChapStick ethereality. The sounds are wimpy, the better to milk depressive empathy out of the girls. And out of me, too. I walk away from Osborne’s set harboring only disheartening memories of Cindy. You have to give the music credit for being potentwe broke up two years ago.
For Michelle Miller, 16, the set produced an entirely different reactionone I ain’t buying. “I swear to God I had a spontaneous orgasm to Joan Osborne,” she says proudly, smoking a post-coital menthol. “All that bass. Could you feel it?” Really? “For real. It was just the bass. It felt good, dammit!”
So, is Miller a lesbian too? “I had a girlfriend when I was in the third grade,” she reports. “It was unofficial, and that was it. I had a crush on her, and it was mutual. I was curious.” There’s that word again. I want to scream.
I don’t want to bury my head in Cindy’s clouded thoughts. I don’t want to remember her saying she still loves me but doesn’t like dicks anymore. I don’t want to think about the nights I spent crying all the way back to my apartment. I don’t want to remember listening to Sarah McLachlan. But I’m stuck here. Eventually I develop a defense mechanismtake in parts of each show and leave before the angst gets to be too much.
I finally give in, though, and decide to sit through McLachlan’s set. I need to hear “Good Enough.” Maybe I will finally get over Cindy (I haven’t had a girlfriend since). This stuff is therapy, after all. To aid my experiment, when McLachlan finally plays the song, I whip out my diary and begin to write furiously. This is gonna be it. The pain will flow, and I will move on. But as I start to write, I realize I have nothing to say. I really am over Cindy. In fact, I have a hard time even remembering why I hurt so much. I don’t recall anything other than the relief I felt after we broke up. Well, that and her calling my record collection “the devil’s music.” As “Good Enough” fades into yet another lush contemplative number, I realize I don’t care anymore.
Cindy doesn’t either. When I talk to her for the first time in a while, she admits she doesn’t like McLachlan anymore: “It’s not really affirming unless you’re looking to affirm your own sadness.”
“I don’t listen to her anymore….The issues that she talks about and the type of pain that she sang about are not relevant to me anymore,” says Cindy, who is now dating a guy and has, to my surprise, “seen the dick.”
“I would listen to her with my friends, and we would try to understand the pain,” she says. “And then life starts, in a way. That was when I was a freshman, and I was dreaming about it. Then I started living.”CP