25 Years Later Lilith Fair Recalls How One Womans Radical

25 Years Later, Lilith Fair Recalls How One Woman’s Radical Idea Changed Music

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

The lineup included a who’s who of the female alternative musicians of the moment: Sheryl Crow, Jewel, The Indigo Girls, Lisa Loeb, Fiona Apple, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant and more.

Lilith Fair was the culmination of a year-long effort by its founder, a Canadian singer-songwriter. Sarah McLachlan had been told by music and concert industry executives that putting more than one woman back-to-back on a line-up or radio playlist would not sell.

“Like I came in and did an interview and they said, ‘Well, we’d like to add that song, but we can’t add you this week because we had a Tori Amos, or because we added Tracy Chapman, or because we added Sinéad O’Connor,'” she recalls. “And it was extremely frustrating. So the beginning of this was just out of a desire to come together as a community. And it became like this — we’re going to break down some barriers boys prove otherwise.”

So McLachlan began raising funds and collaborating with artists to take them on stage before founding Lilith in the summer of 1997.

In its first summer, Lilith overtook the then-dwindling Lollapolooza festival in both viewership and ticket sales. It returned for two more summers and became the highest-grossing music festival of the late 1990s, raking in $60 million in ticket sales during its three-year run.

The eclectic group of female artists included folk, rock, country and pop musicians and sold out almost every single show in its first year. But as Lilith’s popularity grew, critics vilified the festival as “mother music” and proclaimed its mostly white artist roster.

Exactly 25 years later, musicians who attended Lilith Fair and journalists who covered it spoke about the importance of the festival in interviews with NPR.

Jessica Hopper, who wrote an oral history of Lilith Fair, says Lilith’s lessons are still relevant today.

“Safe Space is something we still want to encourage and hold up as an ideal, and it’s like waiting – it’s been done three summers in a row with music’s biggest names,” she explains. “It has shown people models of possibility.”

Criticism was quick, but so were changes

Perhaps inevitably, Lilith became the target of comedians and cultural critics looking to score at the expense of female musical agency. It was just months after Lilith’s first-ever show for Saturday Night Live to introduce a recurring character who poked fun at the overly serious stereotype of a Lilith artist, played by Ana Gasteyer, who babbled on about her folksy approach.

In 1998 the organizers of Lilith had more money at their disposal and could look back on the considerable success of the previous summer. The festival expanded from 37 shows to 57 shows and expanded its lineup to include more than 100 artists across three stages. Festival programmers questioned the perception of Lilith Fair as a mostly white group of folk and alternative artists at a time when R&B, rap and hip-hop were rising in popularity.

Ahead of his sophomore year, McLachlan worked with organizers to intentionally add more color artists to the ticket: Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah performed on the main stage for Lilith’s sophomore year, along with the up-and-coming Missy Elliott, who made her live debut on the Lilith Fair in a giant vinyl garbage bag-inspired suit.

“The whole second year I think is really meaningful because they were artists who changed things in worlds other than the world [McLachlan] busy,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers, who attended all three summers of Lilith Fair. “And through With a 2022 lens, we could say, ‘Oh, I wish there was more variety’… but they have to be given credit.”

Die Musikerin Me'Shell Ndegeocello schreibt Lilith Fair zu, dass sie dazu beigetragen hat, ihr Publikum erheblich zu erweitern.  Hier tritt sie 2002 in <em>The Tonight Show with Jay Leno</em> on.”  width=”880″ height=”660″ src=”https://npr.brightspot://npr.bright com/dims4/default/56d4e07/2147483647/strip/true/crop/2671×2003+0+0/resize/880×660!/quality/90/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.npr.org%2Fassets%2Fimg% 2F2022%2F07%2F01%2Fgettyimages-2258784-05140b4a07816657b44d5245704168d5c5d0fbf3.jpg” loading=”lazy” bad-src=”data:image/svg+xml;base64,PHN2ZyB4bWxucz0iaHR0cDovL3d3dy53My5vcmcvMjAwMC9zdmciIHZlcnNpb249IjEuMSIgaGVpZ2h0PSI2NjBweCIgd2lkdGg9Ijg4MHB4Ij48L3N2Zz4=”/></p><p>Kevin Winter/Getty Images</p><p>/</p><p>Getty Images</p><p>Musician Me’Shell Ndegeocello credits Lilith Fair with helping to significantly expand her audience.  Here she performs in 2002 <em>The Tonight Show with Jay Leno</em> on.</p><p>The addition of more black artists opened the festival to a wider audience and introduced its up-and-coming black artists to a new group of fans.  Meshell Ndegeocello, a bassist and composer who joined the show in 1998, recalls the soothing atmosphere of the festival and the thrill of seeing such powerful female artists – from Paula Cole to Erykah Badu to Natalie Merchant – perform together and support each other .</p><p>“I could see people I admired but valued in a way that had a musical connection to me that was uplifting and healing,” she recalls.  “And I think I thrived as a musician because I got out of the male gaze and the music, where it’s just, ‘Show me what you’ve got.’  And it was more like, ‘What can you make me feel?’”<b> </b>
</p><blockquote><p>“To create an environment where everyone can be seen, heard and appreciated, and come as you are, you know, let your freak flag fly… this is the place where you can do that, and here there is no judgment.”</p></blockquote><p>Sarah McLachlan said that’s what Lilith Fair always wanted to achieve.</p><p>“To create an environment where everyone can be seen, heard and appreciated, and come as you are, you know, let your freak flag fly… this is the place where you can do that, and there is no judgment here.” she recalls.</p><h3>But the show couldn’t go on forever — or make a comeback</h3><p>After his third successful summer on the road, the Lilith iteration came to an end in the ’90s.</p><p>At the time, many stars could look back and point to Lilith Fair as a key catalyst in their success—like Jewel, who graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1997 and sang the national anthem at the 1998 Super Bowl.  Or the English singer Dido, whose song “Thank you” appeared on film soundtracks and was sampled in Eminem’s award-winning single “Stan”.</p><blockquote><p>“Some of these women were told by their agents, ‘This is going to destroy your career if you do this, and in fact the opposite has happened … It shaped stars.”</p></blockquote><p>“Some of these women were told by their agents, ‘It’s going to ruin your career if you do this,'” Hopper says, referring to early industry doubts about the festival’s founding.  “And actually the opposite happened… it shaped stars.”</p><p>It was in part the demands of Sarah McLachlan’s own celestial career that brought Lilith Fair to an end.  Releasing two albums in three years, launching a major touring festival and getting married – all milestones that left the singer exhausted.  As McLachlan told Glamor Magazine in 2017, “I have to go home.  And I must have a life.  People had babies and got married and divorced and I missed it all.”</p><p>But in 2010, McLachlan tried to get Lilith back on her feet by turning to former festival favorites like Erykah Badu and Tegan and Sara.</p><p>The second iteration of Lilith Fair faced several obstacles.  For one thing, McLachlan was now a mother of two daughters and busy completing another album.  As she explained to Glamour, she managed the tour and worked behind the scenes with many of the same coordinators who had helped manage previous tours.  Still, disorganization and shoddy financial management meant many artists — including Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones — dropped out of shows at the last minute.</p><p>Additionally, the music industry had undergone a seismic shift for over a decade.  The digital music age meant audiences were now discovering new music online, rather than on touring festival lineups.  Ticket prices had also increased, with some Lilith VIP packages costing $750.</p><p>McLachlan later speculated that Lilith’s original audience, much like herself, had developed different priorities.  “A lot of the young women who came to Lilith back then have kids at home now, have busy careers,” she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2012.  “And I don’t think we did enough diligence to figure out how our audience had changed and how to reflect that.  In a new show we kind of pitched the same model, which in hindsight was obviously pretty stupid and didn’t get the audience we expected.</p><p>McLachlan and her partners canceled the tour after just a few shows.</p><h3>Lilith’s legacy 25 years later</h3><p>Looking back, did Lilith achieve what she set out to achieve?</p><p>Ann Powers says yes.  She says it turned on its head longstanding assumptions that audiences wouldn’t identify with the femininity and eclecticism of an all-female music festival.  Additionally, Lilith Fair radically expanded the creative possibilities for female musicians who took to their stages to triumph, experiment, even fail and try again.</p><p>“This is a snapshot of a huge range of what women were doing in music during this time when there was a lot of space and demand for women of all kinds to take risks in music,” says Powers.  “And Lilith Fair is almost like, ‘Here’s your compilation of all the wild ideas women had in ’90s music.’  And I think so much of this stuff is like forgotten.”</p><p>For the artists and fans who experienced it, Lilith Fair felt revolutionary.  Her success turned the norms of the concert industry on its head and created a new place for women’s art to develop and thrive.  Lilith Fair was a cultural phenomenon that came together at just the right time.</p><p>NPR researcher Will Chase contributed to this report</p><p class= Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.