People were saying, “You can’t do that.” Well, we did…and people came.
September 30, 2019 10:25 AM   Subscribe

"In 1996, singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan was tipping from alternative icon into something more like traditional pop success. At 26 she had garnered serious momentum—and 2.8 million albums sold in the United States—after her 1993 crossover Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. But as she ascended through the music industry, she kept hearing “no.” No, we can’t play your song—we already have another woman artist in rotation. No, you can’t put two women on the same concert bill—it’s box office poison. Sexism was passed off as age-old industry logic—logic that forced her into competition with other women artists to be the sole exceptional woman allowed opportunity. McLachlan was not alone. So she presented a challenge to her team—let’s prove them wrong" An Oral History of Lilith Fair
posted by everybody had matching towels (21 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
2001 or 2002, we were doing a WFNX-sponsored show in Boston. This was a time of Limp Bizkit. Backstage the program director is talking to someone. Their conversation involved Lilith Fair. He goes, “Mark my words: that will never happen again.”

You know, prior to the last few years I would have mostly thought, "oh, there was an organically-arising misogynist backlash, the market itself is influenced by misogyny on a broad scale, trends change", etc etc. But I feel like the past few years of political life have suggested to me that people pull strings - one of the things that drove the "backlash" was probably specific people like that program director throughout the music industry actively deciding that it would never happen again, and seeing to it. How many men in the music industry specifically decided that the late nineties were bad, women artists should be shut down, etc?

"The market" isn't an aggregation of all our preferences; it's what a comparatively small number of people decide we should have. Like the famous Devil Wears Prada scene with the blue sweater - it's supposed to be all "oooh, fashion editors are so important, it's their world and we just live in it even when we buy bargain basement clothes" but it's really more, "your aesthetic agenda will be set by a handful of rich people who have no fucking idea what you want or need and would not care even if they did".

Weirdly, because my musical tastes were set by riot girl, small labels, etc, and therefore I had access to a lot of music by women when I was in my late teens, I seem to have wildly overestimated the cultural power of Lilith Fair, mainstream women musicians, etc. In my social circle, we didn't think much of Lilith Fair - not because it was women, since we were all seeking out all-women shows, women's zines, etc all the time - because we felt that it was blandly generic corporate sell-out music.

It seems like white women musicians are quoted really heavily for this. Admittedly, you probably can't just call up Queen Latifah for an extended chat, but it is noticeable to me.
posted by Frowner at 11:01 AM on September 30, 2019 [27 favorites]

I was doing fine, enjoying it, loving hearing the stories until I scrolled down and saw the Lilith drawing on the back of a shot of the stage and got hit with the most incredible wave of nostaglia. Five senses' worth! I didn't even know I still had those memories!

Anyway. I went two years in a row, 98 and 99 I think. Of course it was transformative. But also -- I don't have a whole lot of happy memories from that time in my life, but Lilith Fair is one, and it's...just really nice to have that, and know that that's still there in me. I had thought about posting this if no one else had, so thank you for this :)
posted by kalimac at 11:03 AM on September 30, 2019 [13 favorites]

McLachlan: I remember Chrissie Hynde came in all bravado and like, I don’t know about all you silly bitches. She kind of warmed up. I flashed her my boobs, last show.

McLachain was a friend of a friend (of a friend? Everyone claimed to know her in the early 90s after she started to get famous). She was a bit infamous as "Naked Sarah" for all the time she'd spend at Wreck Beach. She was not body shy at all.

I saw one of her warmup shows in Vancouver, then one in the third and final year, when I'd moved to Ottawa. I've never been to more welcoming festivals before or since.
posted by bonehead at 11:36 AM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Late high school into early college was a pretty perfect age to experience Lilith Fair. It was a wonderful experience for me at the time. (If, yes, a pretty white one. Though I do fondly recall how thoroughly Tracy Chapman as the next-to-last act blew away Sarah as the final performer one year. She was fine, but there was a pretty general sense of sure, whatever, BRING TRACY BACK OUT.)
posted by Stacey at 12:46 PM on September 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

everybody had matching towels, thank you for posting this. I never went to Lilith Fair but am a fan of a few artists who were there. So much respect for McLachlan!

Phair: What I do now is I reach out to female artists, and I have them on my bill as often as I can. I just take the spirit of Lilith Fair, and it’s something I use to make my world a little better, and just counteract the forces that I see that I think are negative and toxic.

Yeah. People make these experiences that teach everyone involved that it's possible for things to be different, and then even after those experiences end, people who participated take their memories and that spirit and carry them on into new things.

I helped start a feminist group blog in 2009 and we've been coming to a close, and I see other stuff I care about ending (like Open Source Bridge last year), and it's heartening to see how the legacy of Lilith Fair lives on, decades later. How we're all planting seeds.
posted by brainwane at 12:55 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Experiencing Missy Elliot BLOW EVERYONE'S GODDAMN MINDS at Lilith Fair is one of my favorite live music memories. This was in Virginia Beach, at the brand-new amphitheater, for the second year of the festival in 1998.

The crowd roared a congratulatory welcome when she took the stage, her being a local (from Portsmouth) who was newly and triumphantly famous from the release of Supa Dupa Fly the year before. But then she started playing and jaws dropped and everyone pretty much screamed in excitement at how good she was. It felt absurdly (and gloriously) like a scene in a movie. She most definitely opened some minds to hip-hop who had previously been indifferent.
posted by desuetude at 1:22 PM on September 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

and I see other stuff I care about ending

Oh man, yeah. I guess it's the natural cycle of things, but I feel like this is the middle of that cycle for third-wave feminists, and just. Yeah. I still think about Mia Zapata, and how Home Alive has transformed, and how sad I felt when it shut down. Lilith Fair, and how there's not been anything else quite like that, is all tied into that. More nostalgia, I suppose.

(A bit of good news: after a huge fundraiser, Bitch magazine will stay in print!!)
posted by kalimac at 1:23 PM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is part of what I remember being good about the 90s. Things like Lilith Fair happened.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:03 PM on September 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

Ohhh wow, this is worth it for the photos alone. Lilith Fair was my first concert. I remember mostly being excited to see Natalie Merchant. Now I'm looking at the band list and wishing I could go back in time and give my child self help choosing stages for the other performances. I went with a friend and my mom -- it felt like everyone at the concert was there with their friends and a mom -- it was very wholesome! I think I probably went in '98, because I remember the contrast of watching Woodstock melt down on MTV the next year.
posted by grandiloquiet at 2:59 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Perhaps only tangentially related, and yet... one member of Run DMC owes his life to Sara McLachlan.
posted by progosk at 3:48 PM on September 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I went to Lilith Fair 97 and 98 years, in Phoenix, broiling in the blistering sun while listening to excellent music. I still carry a lot of those artists through me across my life. Such a wonderful weekend. I'd been listening to woman musicians for decades and suddenly a bunch of them were all together, and they brought along friends for me to discover!

I still focus on female music artists. Not on purpose, they just interest me more. Carly Rae and Lizzo are both on my radar right now, amongst others.

I guess maybe as a guy Lilith Fair wasn't really "aimed at" me, but a zillion artists I knew and loved were all playing together and how could I NOT be there?

If anyone felt it was inappropriate for a group of obviously attending together gay bearded bearish men to be at the concert, it was never made apparent to any of us.

Great times, I wish there were an equivalent for today.
posted by hippybear at 8:01 PM on September 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have a short list of concerts I regret missing, Lilith Fair is on there.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:01 PM on September 30, 2019

Never got to Lillith Fair the event but I sure did listen all across the roster. A good chunk of my favorite 90s artists (and some that are still favorites) were on it, formative stuff.
posted by wildblueyonder at 9:25 PM on September 30, 2019

I can't now imagine quite how I ended up at the must-have-been-1997 Lilith Fair since I had developed no sense of agency for such a thing at that point -- but I know I was there, because Tracy Chapman.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:17 PM on September 30, 2019

Metafilter: It was for people who like Blues Traveler and…why go on? It was for people who like Blues Traveler.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:34 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

McLachain was a friend of a friend (of a friend? Everyone claimed to know her in the early 90s after she started to get famous).

I bought some okay marijuana from her boyfriend roundabout then (now an ex, I'm sure). A few years later, a friend sued her (unsuccessfully) for being denied proper songwriting credits on her first album (I think) and got more or less ruined for his trouble. And if even half of what he claimed was right, he had a solid case. Long story short -- his lawyer blew it, turned down a hundred thousand dollar plus out of court settlement, and then Ms. McLachlan's label boss got angry and vindictive, called in the legal equivalent of the goon squad and "sent a message".

All of this, it's worth noting, happened more or less behind her back, even the original decision to not properly credit my friend (the record company wanted to present her as a fully formed auteur who didn't need any help). Which doesn't exactly redeem her as far as I'm concerned (ignorance being no defense blah blah blah), but then there you go -- welcome to the music biz, nobody's innocent.

I do think she went on to do entirely honorable things with her career, both musically and beyond. Though that said, and this is probably a uniquely Vancouver thing, there was a time in the mid-late 90s where you could not go to a coffee shop without hearing her hogging up the background music. It was too much. It was allergy inducing.
posted by philip-random at 8:49 AM on October 1, 2019

Raitt: It was the highlight of all my 50 years of playing.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 3:22 PM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

The first time I met Sarah McLachlan she asked me if I had a spare tampon about three seconds later. She was definitely not shy about pretty much anything. She was visiting the Red House near 12th and Commercial where she had lived when she and some friends had first come out to Vancouver from Halifax, and some still lived there.

We catsat for her once, and one of her cats really liked to suck on people's hair. Found this out when she was hosting a birthday party and the cat crept up on me along the back of the sofa and glommed onto my hair. She was, and appears to still be, a genuinely decent person, completely unpretentious, and generous with her time and financial support of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music.
posted by moneyjane at 6:15 PM on October 2, 2019

I'm having a hard time knowing whether "visiting the Red House" is a metaphor, given how that comment started....
posted by hippybear at 7:02 PM on October 2, 2019

the red house existed in this temporal realm. It's the same place I bought okay marijuana mentioned above.

Vancouver was a pretty small town back then
posted by philip-random at 7:12 PM on October 2, 2019

Hey, everybody had matching towels - I added this to my To Read list way back when you posted it, and I just now got around to reading it.

That was an amazing and wonderful oral history. I never went to a Lilith Fair show, but I was a big music fan during that time and I had no idea about a lot of that stuff - especially the unbelievable hassles they had over their pro-choice stance.

I am really glad I had a chance to read that.

Thank you so much for sharing it with us!
posted by kristi at 10:16 PM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

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