She Pop: Where Have All The Paula Coles Gone? On the Return of Lilith Fair

Say! Here's an exciting headline that I came across during my daily Internet-staring:

Jam For the Ladies: Lilith Fair Returns

Oh... good??? 

Now: I went to Lilith Fair, once upon a time, when you were just a twinkle in your mother's eye. Chrissie Hynde played, which is very exciting if you are from Ohio (like Chrissie Hynde!) and thereby have a special gift (we call it "desperation") which allows you to ignore her later, crappier songs. She berated the audience in a charming fashion and made references to being from Ohio (we love you, Chrissie! We forgive you everything! GIVE US HOPE THAT ONE DAY WE WILL LEAVE THIS PLACE!!!!!) and played a variety of songs, including the later, crappier ones. And I remember this set very well, principally because it was not one of the 5 billion wholesome acoustic-guitar-based wispy-voiced acts that also played at Lilith Fair that evening. 

I think Sheryl Crow was there? Or maybe that lady who is a bitch/lover/child/mother/sinner/saint? Or the lady who would like to know what might happen should God use public transportation? Yeah, by checking Wikipedia, I can verify that it was probably Sheryl Crow. But they've all blurred together, into a big fuzzy glop of memory that I like to call "the late '90s." 

The thing is: as a lady who likes to support ladies, I feel like I should be pro-Lilith Fair. It's For the Ladies! Everyone says so! But my general memory of the event is of a bunch of good intentions and acoustic guitars and tattoos of dolphins jumping over yin-yang symbols. In the end, I feel that I must concur with my friend and colleague, Amanda Hess, who wrote: 

On the one hand, it was great to see so many successful female
musicians all sharing one stage—the original 1997 line-up included Sarah McLachlan, Meredith Brooks, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, and Jewel. On the other hand, who the fuck wants to listen to that shit?

The thing is; Lilith Fair was a very '90s girl-power thing. But it was, more specifically, a very late-'90s girl-power thing. The early parts of that decade saw a renaissance of loud, raucous, challenging female musicians. Some specifically aligned themselves with feminism, through Riot Grrl or just through their own innate feministy inclinations. Others just seemed to spring up out of the zeitgeist, like PJ Harvey, who wrote albums full of genderfuck and raw power and ditties about dry vaginas, or Liz Phair, who could (once upon a time) write lyrics about wanting to be your "blowjob Queen" and lyrics about wanting to "fuck you up so badly" on the same album, or even Tori Amos, who wrote some of the prettiest, most feelingful girlypop ballads you will ever hear, but whose first single was an a cappella account of her own rape, and whose second album included a ballad about masturbating. These musicians were pushing a variety of female rebellion that genuinely got under people's skin. It struck a nerve. It did what feminism is supposed to do: challenge people, make them unsure, get them riled up. It all sounded new. And it succeeded.

Oh, and then Alanis Morrissette. And Gwen Stefani. And Sheryl Crow. And that song about the bitch/lover/child/mother/etcetera. The thing is, by the late '90s - by the time Lilith Fair came around - female rebellion had been deemed salable. And, in the wake of the original wave of innovators, people were specifically concocting music that would tap into the "girl thing" - music that had the risk, and the edges, smoothed off. Feminism became girl power, and rebellion was expertly synthesized, packaged, and sold. It's hard to conceive of, at our current point in history, when nothing is less fashionable than feminist Message Music. But, at the time, the bitch/lover/child/mother song was considered a good single choice because of its "feminist" "message." And in context, it sounded not rebellious, but predictable. People were signed for their ability to do "strong woman," hopefully a sexy, radio-friendly strong woman who wouldn't scare the boys away. And there were a ton of these girls. And Lilith Fair was a cultural event, not just because it emphasized female solidarity and women's space and all of that legitimately good stuff, but because it was the zenith of that particular pop moment. 

And then Britney Spears happened, and people apparently realized that she sold even more, and the crop of "girl power" performers either changed their stripes (Jewel, Stefani, Liz Phair) or disappeared (pretty much everyone in the above-listed crop of Lilith Fair performers) or continued to make music, but with radically diminished sales and relevance. 

And that, I think, is why I'm not that glad about Lilith Fair. To me, it doesn't represent feminist innovation, but the moment right after feminist innovation went mainstream and right before it was swept off the stage. I don't doubt that Sarah McLachlan's intentinos - to resist sexism in the music industry - were true and good, or that the backlash against Lilith Fair was profoundly sexist. But, alongside the sexist backlash, there was a parallel wave of Lilith Fair doubters who didn't feel great about the festival, not because it was an all-girl thing, but because the girls who played there just weren't their favorites. PJ Harvey never played Lilith Fair. Sleater-Kinney didn't. Even Ani DiFranco didn't. And she had an acoustic guitar and everything! Aimee Mann was there (oh, WHAT: I like Aimee Mann, I will not be shamed) but she played the second stage; Tegan and Sara were there, but they played the tiniest stage in the venue. Over on the main stage? Ladies and gentlemen, Paula Cole.

Honestly, I preferred the homogenized, mainstreamed, marketed "girl power" to the current wave of anti-girl power. If Lilith Fair can bring even that modicum of pro-lady consciousness back into the mainstream, that's probably a good thing. But I don't think it's all we should hope for - even if it might be all we can expect.  


by Sady Doyle
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Sady Doyle is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown and the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear, and Why. Her writing has appeared in The GuardianThe Atlantic, The Awl, Buzzfeed, and all across the internet.  ​

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

No Boys Allowed?

Oh god, doesn't that title just epitomize the ridiculous mis-marketing of Lilith Fair? "Jams for Ladies"! Because both women and men listen to music by dudes, but only hairy armed chicks want to listen to <i>women's music</i>. Maybe they'll plan the festival for Superbowl Sunday, so all of our perfectly macho boyfriends will have something to do while we get together and talk about our periods.

I dunno. It could be a chance to see a bunch of my favorite musicians playing together in one venue. Or, like the first Lilith Fair, my favorites may not even show up (Tori and Ani being the top two) and I'll end up seeing one person I want, and sitting through some music that I *don't mind*.

How about, instead of bringing back Lilith Fair, we take the things we learned from Lilith Fair, the successes and failures, and use that information to make an even better, stronger, more subversive music festival, that doesn't feel like it has to focus on mainstream artists (Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole) to speak to an audience ready and eager to listen. Maybe even add in some better musical representations of the gay/queer/trans community while we're at it. Just an idea!

Of course, we seem to live in the era of the "remake," so. Can't say I'm surprised.


Dudes' music is "regular" music. Ladies' music is ... chick music or special interest or something.

I might be into Lilith Fair if they allow electric guitars this time. But then they might have to let Katy Perry in. :(

That's a fairly facile

That's a fairly facile argument you have there at the end - Tegan and Sara didn't exactly have hits when they played the second stage, Paula Cole (who did not perform on any stage the year T&S played) had actual fact radio hits the year she was part of the tour. Thank you, Wikipedia for that easy to find fact. And it looks like I went in 1998 because that was sadly the only time I've had to see Sinead O'Connor perform live. Is she sufficiently rock for you? Or am I just too uncool since I own Aimee Mann albums? And Sheryl Crow ones, too!

Are there actually people saying we should be ashamed if we like Aimee Mann?

To me, this post pretty much reads like "I didn't like these artists very much, they didn't work for me, I like better music!!!!!" and that's not what I expect from a Sady Doyle piece. It does sound a lot like the kind of arguments I thought were super duper important that year I was a college radio dj, but that's not an endorsement.

yeah, i don't like a lot of

yeah, i don't like a lot of the headliners mentioned in the article, but a quick look at the rosters on wikipedia comes up with quite a few worthwhile artists who weren't just straight white ladies singing soulful things with their acoustic guitars, with a few of the ones i'm familiar with being: fiona apple, the cardigans, tracy chapman, indigo girls, juliana hatfield, erykah badu, missy elliot, me'shell ndegeocello, dixie chicks, the pretenders, cibo mato, dido, and beth orton. actually, minus an act or two, that sounds like an ideal late-90s concert to me.

i'm pretty on the up-and-up with feminist musicians, but i'm not a huge fan of anyone listed in the article as being sadly missing from the fair, aside from ani. i think it really comes down to different strokes for different folks. that kind of folky singer-songwriter thing was big at the end of the 90s and was lady-dominated, so i'd expect it to be really well-represented. and really, as the thing was founded and headlined by sarah mc-freaking-lachlan, i'd expect that sort of thing to even be over-represented, as it arguably was. but the list above shows they also had a smattering of quality pop, folk-rock, country, hip hop, techno, r&b, and rock, so they were at least trying. i think it just wasn't the audience they were expecting to attract, so they didn't focus on it.

Sorry you feel that way. To

Sorry you feel that way. To rephrase: Lilith Fair tried to put itself forward as a representation of "women's music," but ended up (despite its efforts at being more "inclusive" in later incarnations, which seemed to mean "inviting a few more ladies of color onto the main stage" in practice) representing only a very particular, very radio-friendly portion of "women's music." And, yeah, the slice of lady-pop it put forward was not as interesting - to me, and to others - as the more challenging, less popular ladystuff out there. So its crimes are that (a) it presented itself as "representative," when it wasn't, (b) it presented itself as an "alternative" while only inviting already successful acts into the spotlight, and (c) it was - AS MUSIC - just not very good. And I'm sorry if you feel that questions of taste or musical quality are not relevant here, but I don't think the fact that so many Lilith Fair acts occupied the same bland, folky, radio-friendly terrain is beyond critique.

I Will Never Grow Tired of Hearing Women Speak Truth To Power

I don't know how anyone could get tired of hearing voices like these <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mary Chapin Carpenter - He Thinks He'll Keep Her</a> <a href="" rel="nofollow">Dixie Chicks - Not Ready To Make Nice</a> <a href="" rel="nofollow>Serendipity - Shaun Colvin</a> <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sarah McHlachlin And Sheryl Crow - Angel</a> I think you may have been refering to "I'm a Bitch I'm a Lover by <a href="" rel="nofollow">Meredith Brooks</a> and ALanis Morissette Thanks for reminding me about them. In this time when the right wing has been sandbagging us again it's nice to hear the voices of women with real spirit. Let's not forget how Clear Channel censored and blacklisted the voices who opposed Bush's war. Lilith Fair is something to look forward to. Great music, strong women, strong message. I love Lagy Gaga in a different way. She is an entertainer. The performers at Lillith Fair are Women's advocates with stronger messages wee should have been listening to. At a time when the Nixon-Ford-GHWBush-Regan-Bush dirty tricks operations are still conducting covert, subversive inflammatory attacks on our privacy, other civil liberties and mounting a blitzkrieg against the highest profile staunch women's rights advocates like Peg Yorkin (right before election time) , we should open our eyes and notice what the totalitarian corporatocracy is trying to cram down our throats, and check who who is in bed with whom.

Aren't we also talking about

Aren't we also talking about the record industry co-opting this particular type of female image in order to make money? I think that is vital when we talk about these female musical acts of the 90s. They were watered down versions of what was already going on in indie and DIY communities, created and hand-picked by record execs in order to profit on what was popular at that moment in time. They were non-threatening and safe, easily digested by the general public. And lots of men in suits were surely making tons of money off these women. While in the meantime, you have some amazing women making amazing music that don't get the time of day because they are deemed not marketable. Or they simply refused to be a commodity.

Lilith Fair was selling the hot product of the moment, it could have been anything. It happened to be female musicians.

It's More Than The Record Industry.

It is true that as the big labels gobbled up smaller record companies almost everybody lost (except the top executives, who did make money), but it wasn't just the record companies. Consolidation of the media by people like Rupert Murdoch is antithetical to the widespread publication of any ideas that are not in the financial and the political interests of those in power. The idea that there was any plausible "financial" fig leaf for Clear Channel to hide behind when they black-balled the Dixie Chicks, banning them from all of their radio stations across the nation just because of a political remark about George Bush just falls flat. There was no excuse for that totalitarian act. It was blatant pro-war marketing and silencing the opposition. I hope the Dixie Chicks Never Back Down. After Richard Nixon had had the National Guard shoot thirteen students at Kent State, killing four and paralyzing another (See the book: The Truth About Kent State" by Peter Davies which has the news photos, and distances. When Time Warner bought the song about Kent State called "Ohio" by <a href="" rel="nofollow"> Crosby Stills and Nash</a> , Time advertised it mentioning 4 students shot. They didn't bother to correct that even after I called and let them know that there were thirteen shot. The shootings at Jackson State went down the memory hole because those students were black. I wonder, If you add up the top executives and boards of directors orf corporations that the major record companies are subsidiaries of, what percentage of them are women?
While I do agree that there may be some poor decisions made that have an element of some pencil-pusher's idea of marketability, if I were mistaken and that were the rule, wouldn't that mean that all the hoopla about content and talent were a bunch of (expletive deleted). In either case, there is a good strong market for Lillith Fair. They certainly have talent, content, a message (and their pulchritude doesn't hurt with the marketing). Maybe the marketing Exec's are afraid their wives will ask them to help with the housework.

look, i'm no fan of lilith.

look, i'm no fan of lilith. i never wanted to go. in fact, at the time, i thought it was insulting and ridiculous to have a festival of only women artists and thought most of the lineups sucked balls. i don't think either of the comments previous to this tried to argue that the quality of the music was beyond critique -- just that your musical taste was not a good reason to write off the festival as a whole.

(a) it presented itself as "representative," when it wasn't

i was about 17 during the onslaught of lilith media coverage and i, personally, never got this message. it was just a festival with primarily lady musicians. did you ever stop to consider that many bands you would have loved to see there wouldn't or couldn't play a festival? you don't just get to go out and say, "hey lady musicians... you have to play this because it's for ladies!" many of them had never played MWMF either, and they don't exactly shy away from weird or non-mainstream stuff.

(b) it presented itself as an "alternative" while only inviting already successful acts into the spotlight.

it only really represented itself as "alternative" so far as it was an alternative to the mostly male line-ups of festivals like lollapalooza. and as far as that goes, it definitely was. i'd be suprised if a festival started with the goal of proving that women artists could sell as many tickets as men would go with too many unknowns.

(c) it was - AS MUSIC - just not very good.

i don't know what kind of magical festivals you go to, but i feel like a line-up is pretty decent if there are even two or three bands i'd like to see. i had a list of 13 artisits who though they may not be your personal taste, were unquestionably quality musical acts. and yeah, "Sarah McLachlan, Meredith Brooks, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, and Jewel," all bore me senseless but they aren't objectively "bad." they were hardly corporate shills back then, even though they may have, at the time, been embraced by radio. they wrote their own music, they controlled their own looks and image. even though they may not have been singing about their dry vag issues, they were still doing music to their own specifications, and i'm not going to knock that even if i won't listen to it.

and furthermore, from my personal stand point, adding liz phair, pj harvey, and tori amos would not have improved that line-up one bit. i'm also fine with people not, i don't know, throwing bloody tampons at me while playing music that makes me wish i didn't have ears, so adding acts like L7 or bikini kill wouldn't have been a big draw for me either. those acts are not somehow of better musical quality than the big list above, though they certainly may have been cooler or edgier at the time, or just more to your liking. if you like punk music, then sure, a punk act is going to be better than jewel any day. that doesn't make it somehow objectively of a better quality.

if you want to critique something from a feminist viewpoint, which to me implies you are trying to be somewhat objective, then "questions of taste" *aren't* particularly relevant in your analysis. musical quality, sure... and that *can* be separated from taste. as clearly evinced by the fact that i just spent 20 minutes defending a festival i thought was stupid the first time around. but i really did want to go just to see the cardigans.

Liz Phair did play Lilith

Liz Phair did play Lilith Fair.

That's a notable thing I thought I should point out.

Also: Fiona Apple? And, you know, I was not really a huge fan of her first album, but the second and third (in its Jon Brion-produced incarnation that got shelved, not the much boringer version that got an official release) were pretty fun. Girl has a voice on her. And is entertainingly messy in the emotional regions. And hired Jon Brion, which can make anything worth a listen. See, also: Aimee Mann, Kanye.

That last bit might not even be relevant, except to say that, while Lilith promoted a fairly homogenized, boring variety of girlypop, some fun stuff ended up on the roster. But, you know. Was drowned by the endless, endless strumming. OH GOD, THE STRUMMING.

Good lord

When will the trend of acting morally superior because you have pedestrian musical tastes end already?

----Signed, Fine, I'm A Fucking Hipster

When will the trend of

When will the trend of acting morally superior because you have, er, superior music tastes end already? (Honestly, here. I fail to see how shaming based on music taste can accomplish anything. You like music A. I like music B. Can we adopt a healthy relativism here and just assume that our taste in music has nothing to do with our moral standing (when we're not using aforementioned taste to shrink other people)? )

Amanda, people with

Amanda, people with pedestrian musical tastes are god's people. They will inherit the earth.

On another note, I didn't go to any of the Liliths, but have been to many concerts with acts that have interesting musical perspectives and one big hit. This usually makes for a terrible show. This is part of what I imagined went wrong with Lilith or at least with the supposedly powerhouse lineup under discussion here. Because, although the people in the crowd may have ardently believed themselves to be Paula Cole fans after hearing "Where have all the Cowboys Gone?" 9,000 times that year, many were no doubt disappointed by Paula's live version. This is not Paula's fault. It's just inevitable.

A 90's music festival featuring PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Liz Phair would have been awesome. This isn't because I consider these people to be artistically superior to any particular Lilith artist. It's because attending a show with the types of people who were diehard Tori, Liz and PJ fans in the 1990s would have been an affair to remember.

i'm confused -- was there a

i'm confused -- was there a point anywhere in this entire post, comments and all, where non-pedestrian music was even mentioned? not a single band mentioned is a "hipster" band. and i'm pretty sure that from my post (aside from the cardigans, whom i still love, bad country album and all) you can't deduce my actual musical taste at all.

i'm not trying to be morally superior, just making the point that when making a feminist critique of something, it doesn't really count for much to dismiss it on the grounds of it not being to your personal taste.

oh yeah!

I'm more authentic than you because I like Boston.

*runs away*

Projecting much? The only

Projecting much? The only ones who act as if they have some kind of superiority (I do not understand the moral part) are the hipsters. You think that just because you knew someone before they were famous and sold out, or like shit that no one else wants to hear; you are somehow more authentic. News flash!!! Look at all of your hipster friends, you act just like another homogenous group of people who are all trying so damn hard to be different. Find something better to look down your nose at others with, better yet, stop being so fucking judgemental.

Lilith was my first

Lilith Fair was my first concert - the first year too - and I went with two of my high school friends...and their moms. In a minivan. My friends and I couldn't drive yet, and somehow, we convinced their very hetero, conservative moms to take us (and mine let us go). Maybe the shows on the coast (were there any?) were a bit more rowdy, but we sat on blankets on the lawn and chilled to the Indigo Girls without really knowing anything super subversive was going on aside from a few lesbian couples holding hands. I got a t-shirt with a naked lady on the front and didn't think twice. I was either way ahead of my time for a 14-year-old, took feminism completely for granted in that context (which is entirely possible) or Lilith Fair - at least the Midwestern leg I saw - was terribly watered down.

Oh WHAT: I like Joan Osborne

I will not be shamed. :-) Seriously, though, I can see every side to this argument and don't really have much to add to the fray, except Joan Osborne rocked. Sure, her hit single was kind of lame, but she has a kick ass bluesy voice and wrote thought provoking, just-a-little-gritty-and-tarnished songs. I recently found this CD in a box of old high school stuff and discovered that it still holds up.

That is all. I will let you get back to the debate now.

Yeah! Joan is a badass ...

... and to anyone who doubts, I offer up the following proof:

The throat-clawing "St. Theresa":

The soulful, jaw-dropping, passionate "What's Become of the Brokenhearted" (performed with the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band):

The bluesy weirdness of "Right Hand Man":

... and of "Baby Love":

The eeriness of "War (What Is It Good For)":

The joy of "Heatwave" (again with the Funk Brothers):

KaPOW! Go Joan!

Britney > Lilith

<blockquote>And then Britney Spears happened, and people apparently realized that she sold even more, and the crop of "girl power" performers either changed their stripes (Jewel, Stefani, Liz Phair) or disappeared (pretty much everyone in the above-listed crop of Lilith Fair performers) or continued to make music, but with radically diminished sales and relevance.</blockquote>
The worst thing about Lilith Fair isn't the music (though that tended to be rather awful) but that the festival, in its conception, ghetto-ized music made by women. By compartmentalizing it away from regular music, it affirmed that tunes made by men were the important ones, and tunes made by women had to be cocooned away for a niche market that the mainstream could safely ignore.

That's why it's a great thing that "Britney Spears happened." Britney plays and wins on the level playing field. She's music everyone has to pay attention to.

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