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It was July 5, 1997: The opening night of the groundbreaking all-female music festival Lilith Fair.
The lineup features current alternative female musicians: Sheryl Crow, Jewel, The Indigo Girls, Lisa Loeb, Fiona Apple, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant and more.
The Lilith Fair is the culmination of a year of work for its founder, a Canadian singer-songwriter. Sarah McLachlan have been told by music and concert industry executives that placing more than one woman on a radio lineup or playlist won’t sell.
“Like, I’m going to walk in and do an interview and they say, ‘Well, we want to add this song but we can’t add you this week because we already have Tori Amos or because we added Tracy Chapman or because we added Sinéad O’Connor,” she recalls. “And it’s been extremely frustrating. So the beginning of this was just born out of a desire to come together as a community. And it became this – we’re going to break down some barriers. We will prove these people wrong.”
So McLachlan started fundraising and working with performers to join her on stage before debuting Lilith in the summer of 1997.
In its first summer, Lilith easily surpassed the then-decaying Lollapolooza festival, both in terms of audience size and ticket sales. It returned for two more summers and went on to become the highest-grossing music festival of the late 1990s, raking in $60 million in ticket sales over its three-year run.
The eclectic group of female artists includes folk, rock, country and pop musicians and nearly sold out at every first show. But as Lilith’s popularity grew, critics deemed the festival “mother music” and called the festival mostly white.
Exactly 25 years later, the musicians participating in the Lilith Fair and the journalists who covered it reflected the festival’s importance in interviews with NPR.
Jessica Hopper, author of a the oral history of the Lilith . FairLilith’s lessons are still relevant today.
“Safe space is something we’re still trying to nurture and treat as an ideal, and it’s like waiting – this has been accomplished three summers in a row with the biggest names in the village music,” she explained. “It shows people patterns of possibility.”
Criticism is quick, but so is change
Perhaps inevitably, Lilith has become a target for comedians and cultural critics to score at the expense of the female music company. It’s only been a few months after Lilith’s first show for Saturday night live to introduce a recurring character mocking the overly serious stereotype of an artist Lilith, played by Ana Gasteyer, who spoke about her folklore approach.
By 1998, Lilith’s organizers had more money to work with and could point to the marked success of the previous summer. The festival has expanded from 37 shows to 57 performances, expanding its lineup to include more than 100 artists across three stages. Festival organizers challenged Lilith Fair’s perception of a predominantly white group of folk and alternative music artists at a time when R&B, rap and hip-hop were increasingly popular.
During the lead-up to sophomore year, McLachlan worked with organizers to intentionally add more artists of color tickets: Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah take the main stage for Lilith’s second year, alongside rising Missy Elliott, who had her first live performance at Lilith Fair in a vinyl trash bag-inspired suit huge.
“All that second year, I think, is really important because it’s the artists who changed things in different worlds than the world. [McLachlan] occupation, “say NPR music critic Ann Powers, who attended all three summers of the Lilith Fair. “And passed a 2022 lens, we can say, ‘Oh, I wish it had more variety’ … but you have to credit them. “
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The addition of more artists of color opened the festival to a wider audience and introduced its rising black female artists to a new fanbase. Meshell Ndegeocelloa bassist and composer who joined the show in 1998, recalls the relaxed carnival atmosphere and thrill of seeing such powerful female artists – from Paula Cole, Erykah Badu to Natalie Merchant – perform together and support each other.
“I was able to see people I admired but loved in a way that had a musical connection to me, which was uplifting and healing,” she recalls. “And I think I flourished as a musician because I got away from the male gaze and the music, you know, ‘Show me what you’ve got.’ And it was like, ‘What can you make me feel?’ “
Sarah McLachlan says that’s exactly what the Lilith Fair has always had to be.
“To create an environment where people are seen, heard and appreciated, and come in as you, you know, let your quirky flag fly… this is where you can do it and there is no judgment here”. she recalls.
But the show can’t go on forever – or come back
After a third successful summer on the road, Lilith’s repeat of the ’90s is over.
At the time, many stars could look back and see the Lilith Fair as a major catalyst for their success – like Jewel, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1997 and sang the National Anthem at the 1998 Super Bowl. Or British singer Dido, whose song “Thank you” was included on the soundtrack and sampled on Eminem’s award-winning single “Stan”.
“Some of these women have told them, ‘This is going to kill your career if you do this,'” Hopper said, referring to her initial suspicions. industry around the establishment of the festival. “And in fact, the opposite happened…it casts out the stars.”
It was the demanding part of Sarah McLachlan’s heavenly career that brought Lilith Fair to an end. Releasing two albums in three years, starting a major touring festival, and getting married — all milestones that exhaust a singer. As McLachlan recounted to Glamor magazine in 2017, “I have to go home. And I have to have a life. People have had children, married and divorced, and I’ve missed them all.”
But in 2010, McLachlan tried to get Lilith off the field again, turning to old carnival favorites like Erykah Badu and Tegan and Sara.
Lilith Fair’s second iteration ran into some setbacks. First, McLachlan is now a mother of two daughters and is busy working on another album. When she explained to The glamor, she is eyeing the tour and is working with many of the same behind-the-scenes coordinators who have helped manage previous tours. However, disorganization and poor financial management have caused many artists – including Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones – quit the program at the last minute.
What’s more, the music industry has been experiencing an earthquake for over a decade. The digital music era means audiences are now discovering new music online, instead of touring lineups during festivals. Ticket prices have also gone up, with some of Lilith’s VIP packages costing $750.
McLachlan later speculated that, like herself, Lilith’s original audience had developed a different set of priorities. “A lot of young women who came to Lilith back then now have children at home, have busy jobs,” she told Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2012. “And I don’t think we’ve been elaborate enough in discovering how our audience has changed and how to reflect that. In a new show, we came up with the same model, you know, obviously in pretty stupid hindsight and it didn’t get the audience we expected.”
McLachlan and her partners canceled the tour after just a few shows.
Lilith’s Legacy 25 Years Later
Looking back, did Lilith achieve what she set out to do?
Ann Powers said yes. She said that shattered long-held assumptions that audiences wouldn’t connect with the femininity and eclecticism of an all-female music festival. Not only that, but Lilith Fair radically expands the creative possibilities for female musicians, who have come to each stage to win, experiment, even fail, and try again.
“This is a snapshot of what women are doing in music in this day and age when there is so much space and demand for all kinds of women to take risks,” Powers said. in music,” Powers said. “And Lilith Fair was pretty much, ‘Here’s your compilation of every wild idea women had in music in the ’90s.’ And I think a lot of that is like being forgotten.”
For the artists and fans who have experienced it, Lilith Fair feels like a revolution. It is successfully surpassing the standards of the concert industry and creating a new place where female art can thrive and flourish. The Lilith Fair is a combined cultural phenomenon at the right time.
NPR researcher Will Chase contributed to this report