Lilith Fair, 25 years later, is a reminder how one woman's revolutionary idea changed music

It was July 5, 1997, the opening night of the pioneering all-female music festival Lilith Fair.

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05 July 2022 Tuesday 14:18
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Lilith Fair, 25 years later, is a reminder how one woman's revolutionary idea changed music

It was July 5, 1997, the opening night of the pioneering all-female music festival Lilith Fair.

The line-up featured a wide range of female alternative artists: Jewel, The Indigo Girls and Sheryl Crow. Fiona Apple, Shawn Colvin. Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant, and many more.

The culmination of a year's work by its founder, a Canadian singer/songwriter, Lilith Fair was the end result. Music and concert industry executives had told Sarah McLachlan that having more than one woman in a line-up or on a radio playlist would not sell.

She recalls, "Like, they would ask me to do an interview. They said that we couldn't add this song this week because Tori Amos was there or Tracy Chapman was there or SinA(c).ad O'Connor was here." It was very frustrating. The desire to be a part of a community was the catalyst for this project. It became this aEUR" that we are going to remove some barriers. These guys are wrong.

McLachlan began to fundraise for performers and to work with them before she launched Lilith in 1997.

Lilith easily beat the now-defunct Lollapolooza festival in terms of both attendance and ticket sales its first year. It returned for the second summer and became the most-popular music festival in the late 1990s. The three-year-old event sold $60 million worth of tickets.

This diverse group of women artists, which included pop, rock, country, and folk musicians, sold almost every show it held its first year. Critics began to disparage Lilith's festival as "mom-music" and criticized its predominantly white lineup of performers.

Twenty-five years later, Lilith Fair was celebrated by musicians and journalists covering the event.

Jessica Hopper, the author of an oral history about Lilith Fair, believes Lilith's lessons are still relevant today.

She explains that safe space is something we are still trying to foster. It showed people models for possibility.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lilith was a target of comedians and cultural critics who were looking to score points at female musical agency. Ana Gasteyer, who bragged about her folkist approach, introduced a recurring character mocking Lilith's overly earnest stereotype. It was just a few short months after Lilith's first Saturday Night Live show.

The organizers of Lilith were able to use more money in 1998 to build on the success of the previous summer. The festival's lineup grew from 37 to 57 shows and now features more than 100 performers on three stages. Festival programmers challenged the perceptions Lilith Fair was a predominantly white group of folk and alternative musicians at a time when R&B and rap were becoming more popular.

Missy Elliott - The rain (Supa Dupa Fly), music video, 1997.

McLachlan collaborated with organizers to add more artists of colour to the ticket in the run-up to its second-year. Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliott joined the main stage for Lilith’s second year. Missy Elliott made her first live performance at Lilith Fair wearing a giant vinyl trash bag-inspired suit.

Ann Powers, NPR Music critic, says that all of the second year is significant. "All of that was because these were artists who were changing everything in different worlds that [McLachlan] occupies." Ann Powers was a Lilith Fair participant. "And we could look at it through a 2022 lens and say, 'Oh, I wish it was more diverse'... but they deserve credit.

The festival was able to attract a wider audience and showcase its emerging Black female artists to a new audience. Meshell Ndegeocello is a composer and bassist who was a part of the show's 1998 lineup. She recalls the festival’s comfortable atmosphere and the excitement of seeing such powerful female artists aEUR” from Paula Cole, Erykah Badu, and Natalie Merchant aEUR” performing together and supporting one another.

She recalls that she was able "to see people that I admired, but also cherished in a manner that had an emotional connection to me that was healing and uplifting." I believe I thrived as a musician, because I was free from the male gaze and music that's essentially, "Show me what's your got." It was more like, "What can you make my feel?"

"To create an environment in which everyone is valued and seen, heard, and valued.

Sarah McLachlan stated that this is exactly what Lilith Fair was supposed to do.

She recalls, "To create an environment in which everyone gets to see, hear, and be valued, and you know, let you freak flag fly... this place you get that and there is not judgment here."

The 90's Lilith was able to end its third successful summer on road.

Many stars could now look back at Lilith Fair and say that she was a key catalyst to their success. Or Dido, an English singer whose song "Thank you", was used in movie soundtracks. It was also featured in Eminem’s award-winning single "Stan".

"Some of these women were told that they would lose their careers if they did this by their agents. But the reverse happened. It produced stars.

Hopper says that some of these women were warned by their agents that doing this would endanger their careers. This refers to industry doubts surrounding the festival's inception. "And in reality, the opposite happened...it minted stars."

Lilith Fair was halted partly because of Sarah McLachlan’s celestial career. The singer was exhausted after releasing two albums in three years, starting a major tour festival and finally getting married "aEUR". McLachlan told Glamour Magazine that he had to return home in 2017. I need to live a normal life. People have been having children, getting married, and then getting divorced.

McLachlan attempted to revive Lilith in 2010, but he turned to festival veterans like Sara, Tegan, and Erykah Badu.

The second Lilith Fair album faced many obstacles. McLachlan, now a mother to two daughters, was also busy working on yet another album. Glamour spoke to McLachlan, explaining that she was the headlining act and working with many of her former behind-the scenes coordinators. However, many artists, including Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones, were forced to cancel shows due to disorganization and poor financial management.

The music industry had seen a dramatic transformation over the past decade. Digital music meant that people were discovering new music online rather than at festivals. Some Lilith VIP packages were priced at $750.

McLachlan speculated later that Lilith's original audience had a different set priorities. She told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that many of the Lilith's original audience were now working, and have children at home. "And I don’t think we did enough diligence in discovering how our audiences had changed and how we could reflect that. We kind of used the same model in a new show. It was, however, quite stupid and didn't attract the audience we expected.

McLachlan and her partner ended up cancelling the tour after just a few shows.

Did Lilith accomplish what it set out?

Ann Powers said yes. It reaffirmed long-held preconceptions that women wouldn't be able to connect with the feminine and eclecticism of an all female music festival. Lilith Fair opened up new creative opportunities for women musicians who used its stages to succeed, fail, and try again.

Powers states that this is a snapshot showing the wide range of women's music activities in an era when there was more space and demand for women to take risks in music. Lilith Fair almost feels like, "Here's your compilation all the wild ideas that women had in music during the '90s." It's almost like a compilation of every wild idea that women had in music in the '90s.

It was a momentous experience for both the artists and the fans who witnessed it. Its success reshaped the concert industry and opened up a new space for female artists to flourish. Lilith Fair was a cultural phenomenon which emerged at the perfect time.

Will Chase, NPR researcher, contributed to this report

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