Defending Lilith Fair -

Defending Lilith Fair

Sarah McLachlan takes on critics of her (recently resurrected) festival


Photograph by Raphael Mazzucco

It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years since Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair wended its way across North America in Birkenstocks and hemp-made scarves. What started as a small songwriters’ showcase geared toward celebrating female musicians of the folk and adult-contemporary variety has grown into an internationally renowned festival replete with top-billing pop artists and sold-out crowds. Ever since the event announced a 2010 return last year (the first city stop will be Calgary on June 27), posts on a variety of music websites are debating whether the new Lilith lineup will hold a patchouli-scented candle to the legendary concert series produced from 1997 to 1999.

Selling over 1.5 million tickets ($10 million was donated to national and local charities), the event was a labour-intensive effort. “People don’t know how exhausting it is to put on,” McLachlan says over the phone from Vancouver, explaining Lilith’s decade-long hiatus. “We were happy to put it up on the shelf once it ended on a high note [in 1999] because it was just so much work. Aside from juggling the [multi-artist] logistics of it, you have to realize that back then, I felt I had to defend it daily,” she says. “During many of our press conferences, I remember saying, ‘I started a musical festival here, not a political campaign.’ ”

What McLachlan was defending herself from was the copious amounts of criticism Lilith received (a few mainstream magazines, including Rolling Stone, used the words “estrogen-fest” and “feminazis” to describe the crowd). Although proceeds from ticket sales broke records and the bulk of reviews was stellar, McLachlan—who performed at each and every city stop—still took the flak for just about everything connected to Lilith: the charities involved, the lack of shoes worn on stage and the constant use of the other F-word: feminism.

Even now, when McLachlan hears that Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada recently declared, “Feminism doesn’t really exist anymore, does it?” to the London Times, the Halifax-born talent’s voice shakes. “What world does she live in?” McLachlan asks. “That sounds like a really naive comment. There are so many places on earth where women have no rights and are fifth-class citizens, so I’d be remiss to say feminism is not alive or needed. I don’t know how [Prada] can say that. It’s not innocent, it’s ignorant.”

McLachlan is quick to point out that during her tenure at Lilith’s helm in the late ’90s, she wanted to ensure that equality and inclusion were a big part of Lilith’s official mandate. “There were moments I did feel like I was on a social crusade. Some people thought it was either too feminist or not feminist enough; it either had too many lesbians or not enough lesbians or it was too pro-choice or too this-or-that,” she reflects. “But I’ve realized you can’t please everyone and all those debates made me solidify my views even more.”

A flip through the book From Lilith to Lilith Fair, written by McLachlan’s long-time friend Buffy Childerhose, gives a detailed outline of what Lilith’s goals were and still are: “to promote a community among female artists and fans.” It’s a tag line that 27-year-old indie-rock performer St. Vincent (real name Annie Clark) is far from comfortable with. Clark recently told popular music website Spinner that she feels musicians participating in Lilith Fair are “hop[ping] aboard the marginalizing train,” and insists that the tour “helps perpetuate this idea that what women do in music is acoustic, sincere, sentimental and without edge.”

McLachlan, hearing the comment, comes back with: “Has she even heard of Tegan and Sara?”—referring to the Calgary-born alt-rock duo, who happen to be twins, staunch feminists, proud lesbians and two of Lilith’s headliners. “We never felt ghettoized before, during or after we played Lilith,” says 29-year-old Tegan Quin, while on tour in Toronto to promote her band’s latest disc, Sainthood. “People who know Tegan and Sara know we are certainly not cursed by Lilith.” If anything, Quin reiterates, “Lilith helped us get airplay. There are a million festivals—and we’ve played most of them—but 90 per cent of the bands on all those bills are still men. Women who are a part of [Lilith] are 100 per cent empowered by it. When 15,000 people a night are coming out to see a bunch of girl acts, there’s only one word you can use to describe it: awesome.”

The notion that the tour lacked diversity is something McLachlan and her manager and Lilith co-founder, Terry McBride, have wrestled with ever since Lilith was born. Although Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot and Erykah Badu all shared the main stage during a slew of dates in 1998, many people still presume the event to be a sombre, single-white-female folk-fest. “I learned to set the perception differently from the past Liliths this time around because the media did a very good job at skewing it early on,” says McBride over the phone from his L.A. office. “That’s why my first announcement for [2010’s lineup] had to have 40 artists on it. I made sure there wasn’t one category of music missing from it—Latin, country, rock, dance, indie, pop, heritage and urban.” McLachlan adds, “I would have agreed with [Clark]’s remarks if this was Lilith’s first go round, but it’s not. We are looking to push the envelope now.”

The result of such a push is that the sought-after mix of performers added to this year’s lineup promises the most interesting acts Lilith’s stage has ever seen. The eclectic combo of women includes hit-makers such as Ke$ha and Rihanna, vintage girl groups like the Go-Go’s and the Bangles and country icon Loretta Lynn alongside R & B innovators Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott.

“I will definitely change the face of this concert and I’m glad to be a part of breaking some of its traditions,” says Mary J. Blige from New York. As one of the tour’s biggest headliners, the media-crowned Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is booked to play Lilith’s Montreal and Toronto dates. “I can’t wait to experiment on stage because that’s what I know a lot of singers do at Lilith. People can expect me to sing [Led Zeppelin’s] Whole Lotta Love and Stairway to Heaven and my hits, too. It’s going to be all-out Mary.”

Blige adds that Lilith’s stage is a place she’ll feel comfortable to express what she calls her “personal politics.” “Women need to be told that they are queens and princesses. It’s our job as leaders in the music industry to be teachers and tell women how they should be treated by men and by themselves. I truly believe that if we save the women, we save the world,” the 39-year-old singer explains. “Listen, if it weren’t for us, there’d be no life. We have wounds, we carry children for nine months, we go through cramps, we suffer through the worst pain that men can’t even imagine. That’s why this concert is so important—if you take away the classroom, nobody’s gonna learn.”

Philadelphia’s 38-year-old Jill Scott agrees with Blige. “When I see Sarah McLachlan sing and chat up Sheryl Crow backstage, of course my own art is going to grow,” says Scott. “Witnessing where all these women are in their varying levels of age, success and talent is knowledge. To see and hear who’s happy, who’s lonely, who has children and what’s missing in their lives is wisdom. Sisterhood is power.”

Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s wishes Lilith could have happened years ago. “Who knows how much farther the Go-Go’s would have gone if Lilith Fair was around when we first started in the late ’70s?” the 51-year-old asks from her home in France. “Back then, it felt like we were the only girls on stage. A lot of the guys around us were a bunch of sexist, violent, drugged-out punks who threw things at us while we played. We could have developed our musicality a lot quicker if we were able to see how other women played. We were usually seen as competition by male groups—not comrades.”

The only thing that comes close to a competition at Lilith is the inclusion of a digital American Idol-esque contest called the Lilith Local Talent Search. For the month of May, local acts from around North America will be able to submit a sample of their best performances for a chance to be on tour with McLachlan and company. This feature isn’t the only newfangled addition to the Lilith legacy. Aside from the occasional Twitter update—which is not written by McLachlan (“I hate Twitter,” she laughs. “It’s banal and turned into a society pager for people with too much time on their hands”), the tour also has a campaign on their Facebook page that allows people to vote on a charity for Lilith to donate to. Recently ticket buyers discovered that a handful of anti-choice organizations were among the charitable options. As soon as the Lilith team was informed, various charities were dismissed from the running.

It isn’t the first time McLachlan has crossed paths with anti-choice groups. “I remember a bunch of pro-lifers came to a press conference at a past Lilith Fair stop and started giving me s–t about why I allowed Planned Parenthood tables and why they couldn’t get a table,” she recalls. “I just said: it’s my festival and I believe in pro-choice.”

As if all the other pressure wasn’t enough, McLachlan has also timed the relaunch of Lilith with her new CD release. Titled The Laws of Illusion (“the title is an oxymoron,” she says), the disc is slated for release on June 15 and is the first collection of freshly penned songs she’s recorded since 2003’s Afterglow. Although she split from husband and ex-drummer Ashwin Sood last year (the former couple share two daughters), she insists the recordings are not indicative of a divorce album.

“I know everybody is going to go, ‘oh that song is about your ex,’ but you know what? It’s not,” she says. Produced by long-time collaborator Pierre Marchand, Laws will address what she refers to as “coming to terms with loss and realizing everything that you thought was true is, in fact, an illusion. I’ve been through a s–t storm and so have some of my friends,” she laughs. “The songs do reflect that.” Dark themes aside, McLachlan swears that no matter what she goes through, she’ll always be a glass-half-full kind of woman. “I’m an eternal optimist with a small degree of cynicism,” she says. “I never want to lose either. One of my favourite lines is: if it doesn’t happen, the world will continue to spin.”


Defending Lilith Fair

  1. Go Lilliith! There's nothing bad and everything good about promoting women artists. They have been and still are greatly overlooked… thanks, sarah!

  2. oh very nice

  3. This article made me really excited, since I had a lot of fun at the Lilith Fairs in 1998 and 1999. But then I looked at the lineups, which seem to feature none of the interesting artists mentioned in the article. Tegan and Sara, for instance, are playing only one show (Boston). Most of the acts are doing like two or three nights each. So instead of a truly amazing festival, you get Sarah McLachlan, one of the classic artists, maybe one decent newer artist, and some random other people. And I do mean random – Jill Hennessy of Law and Order fame seems to be playing a couple of shows.

  4. Who the hell in the media got the idea that the shows were "sombre"? Not anybody who went to them.

  5. Love Lillith Fair! In a men run world we need each other to remind each other that we are strong, that we are powerful and that we can…what could possibly be wrong about women gathering like we always have for centuries to celebrate and share? …especially when there are so many talented awesome women out there eager to inspire…I say more power to Sarah for undertaking this massive endeavor.

  6. How can they claim that women artist are overlooked ? Women in the music industry make all the money these days.Every one knows sex sells and they sell it well alright ! All the top paid artist are women, they get all press and promotion in the world. Hell, these days it's practicly illegal to critise them! Just a bunch of spoiled white girls who want to vent out there anger on men for what's happening to women in other countries

    • I criticized Celine Dion yesterday and somehow I avoided imprisonment!

  7. I think that's a typo – "wombs" seems more appropriate for the context.

  8. Why would you read an article about her festival in the first place then?

  9. I am so thrilled that Sarah is back again. I was lucky enough to attend all three Lilith fairs and just by chance attended the first one where it was opened by Paula Cole and Fionna Apple. I am just a little dissapointed that the PNC art show is not as powerful as I hoped. Why are we getting Selena as oppsed to Sia or Sheryl Cowe or Queen Latifa. New York deserves a better line up

  10. These quotes from Mary J. Blige blow my mind. Fantastic story.

  11. Interesting comment by the Prada person….God forbid women become so empowered we no longer need designer bags and shoes to accesorize our dissatisfaction with outward appearances! Feminism/Self-Love/Compassion will always have a place as long as comments such as those exist. Keep on doing your thing, Sarah….it's obvious this world has missed Lillith and i'm just so glad it's back.

  12. Funny… I always thought music was about the MUSIC… not about sexual choices or feminism… sexism is just racism that has substituted gender for race… music is about music, grind your axe in some other medium!

  13. Have you ever read a book that really changed the way you look at things? What was the book?

  14. I see Kesha and Rihanna in there. Funny how all the fems did all the bashing that men looked upon women as sex toys now we got two sex toys selling their asses. I thought it was about the MUSIC.mik

  15. Seriously people… why does anyone need to "defend" a music festival? There are gay pride parades, festivals for various cultural music, etc.. The line-up of women is going to be different from city to city depending on their availability and if you don't like what they have to offer, just don't buy a ticket. I don't know who it is hurting to hold this event! It raises loads of money for great charities to advance the position of women in the world. Anyone who denies that is a worthy cause is living in a cave (in Afghanistan… probably a member of the Taliban).

  16. Music, especially live music can not exist without being a collaborative affair. Originally it was good spin to call this a women's show.It's not. The majority of the players participating on stage are men. Sarah,with all due respect you got lucky with the feminist card the first time, this time you should have come up something a little more enlightened…cheers.