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It was July 5, 1997: Opening night of the groundbreaking women’s music festival Lilith Fair.
The lineup featured a who’s who of today’s female alternative musicians: 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 of work by its founder, a Canadian singer-songwriter. Concert and music industry executives had told Sarah McLachlan that putting more than one woman in a row on a radio playlist wouldn’t sell.
“I’d come in and do an interview and they’d say, ‘Well, we’d love to add this 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 born out of a desire to come together as a community. And it turned into this: We’re going to break down some barriers. We’re going to prove these guys wrong.” .”
McLachlan then began fundraising and working with artists to accompany her on stage before releasing Lilith in the summer of 1997.
In its first summer, Lilith easily surpassed the then-fading Lollapolooza festival in both audience size and ticket sales. It returned for two more summers and became the highest-grossing music festival of the late 1990s, amassing $60 million in ticket sales over its three years.
The eclectic group of female artists included folk, rock, country and pop musicians and sold out almost every show in its first year. But as Lilith’s popularity grew, critics dismissed the festival as “mommy music” and drew attention to its mostly white lineup of artists.
Exactly 25 years later, the musicians who participated in Lilith Fair and the journalists who covered it reflected on the importance of the festival in interviews with NPR.
Jessica Hopper, author of a oral history of lilith fairsays that Lilith’s lessons are still relevant today.
“Safe space is something we’re still trying to foster and uphold as an ideal, and it’s like you’d expect: this was achieved three summers in a row with the biggest names in music,” he explains. “He showed people models of possibility.”
The criticism was swift, but so was the change.
Perhaps inevitably, Lilith became a target for comedians and cultural critics scoring points at the expense of the female music agency. It was only a few months after Lilith’s first show to saturday night live to introduce a recurring character who pokes fun at the overly serious stereotype of an artist of Lilith, played by Ana Gasteyer, who spoke about her folkloric approach.
By 1998, the organizers of Lilith had more money to work with and could point to the marked success of the previous summer. The festival expanded from 37 shows to 57 shows, expanding its lineup to include more than 100 artists across three stages. Festival programmers challenged perceptions of Lilith Fair as a mostly white group of folk and alternative artists at a time when R&B, rap, and hip-hop were gaining in popularity.
In the run-up to his sophomore year, McLachlan worked with organizers to intentionally add more performers of color. to the ticket: Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah joined the main stage for Lilith’s sophomore year, along with up-and-coming Missy Elliott, who made her live debut at Lilith Fair in a giant vinyl garbage bag-inspired outfit.
“I think that whole second year is really significant because they were artists that were changing things in worlds other than the world that they were. [McLachlan] occupies,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers, who attended all three summers of Lilith Fair. “And through a 2022 lens, we could say, ‘I wish it had been even more diverse’… but give them credit.”
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The addition of more artists of color opened up the festival to a broader audience and exposed its up-and-coming black artists to a new set of fans. Meshell Ndegeocello, a bassist and songwriter who joined the show in 1998, remembers the uplifting atmosphere of the festival and the thrill of being able to see such powerful female artists, from Paula Cole to Erykah Badu and Natalie Merchant, perform together and support each other.
“I was able to see people that I admired but appreciated in a way that had a musical connection to me that was uplifting and healing,” she recalls. “And I think I blossomed as a musician because I was outside of the male gaze and music where it’s just, you know, ‘Show me what you got.’ And it was more like, ‘What can you make me feel?'”
Sarah McLachlan said that’s exactly what Lilith Fair was always supposed to achieve.
“To create an environment where everyone can be seen, heard, and valued, and come as you are, you know, let your freak flag fly…this is the place where you can do that and there’s no judgment here.” she remembers.
But the show couldn’t go on forever, or make a comeback.
After its third successful summer on the road, the ’90s iteration of Lilith has come to an end.
At the time, many stars could look back and point to Lilith Fair as a major catalyst for their success, such as Jewel, who graced the cover of time magazine in 1997 and sang the National Anthem at the 1998 Super Bowl. Or English singer Dido, whose song “Thank You” appeared on movie soundtracks and was included on Eminem’s award-winning single “Stan.”
“Some of these women were told by their agents, ‘This is going to kill your career if you do this,'” says Hopper, referring to early industry doubts surrounding the festival’s founding. “And in fact the opposite happened…it minted stars.”
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 come home. And I have to have a life. People have been having babies, getting married and getting divorced, and I’ve missed it.”
But in 2010, McLachlan tried to get Lilith off the ground again, turning to old festival favorites like Erykah Badu and Tegan and Sara.
The second iteration of Lilith Fair faced several obstacles. For one thing, McLachlan was now the mother of two daughters and busy finishing another album. As she explained to GlamorShe was headlining the tour and working with many of the same behind-the-scenes coordinators who had helped manage previous tours. Still, disorganization and financial mismanagement meant that many artists, including Kelly Clarkson Y Norah Jones — abandon programs at the last minute.
Furthermore, the music industry had been undergoing seismic change for a decade. The digital music era meant that audiences were now discovering new music online, rather than on festival tours. Ticket prices had also increased, with some Lilith VIP packages costing $750.
McLachlan later speculated that, like her, Lilith’s original audience had developed a different set of priorities. “A lot of the young women who came to Lilith back then now have children at home, they have busy careers,” she told the magazine. 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. On a new show, we launched the same model, which, you know, obviously in hindsight was pretty stupid and didn’t get the audience. what we hoped to get.
McLachlan and his partners ended up canceling the tour after only a few shows.
Lilith’s legacy 25 years later
Looking back, did Lilith achieve what she set out to achieve?
Ann Powers says yes. She says she changed long held assumptions that audiences wouldn’t connect with the femininity and eclecticism of an all-female music festival. Not only that, Lilith Fair radically expanded the creative possibilities of female musicians, who took to its stages to succeed, experiment, even fail and try again.
“This is a snapshot of a wide variety of what women were doing in music in this era where there was so much room 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 crazy ideas women had in music in the ’90s.’ And I think a lot of that stuff is sort of forgotten.”
For the artists and fans who experienced it, Lilith Fair felt revolutionary. Her success changed the norms of the concert industry and created a new place where female artistry could evolve and flourish. Lilith Fair was a cultural phenomenon that came together at just the right time.
NPR researcher Will Chase contributed to this report.