Viewpoint, Sally Timms on the Lilith Fair

By Sally Timms

SPECIAL TO THE Chicago TRIBUNE, Sunday, August 22, 1999

Two major festival events of the summer most likely breathed their last this year.
In July, Woodstock '99 ended on a note of wanton violence and destruction when some of the 200,000 young attendees, exhausted from three days of sweltering heat and a lack of toilet facilities, destroyed vending outlets and set fire to cars and broadcast towers. Aside from the rampant profiteering, Woodstock '99 harked back to the poorly conceived rock events of the '60s such as Altamont--except now you have to pay $180 dollars for the privilege of standing in a concrete bunker and dealing with scarcity of functional toilets . As the Woodstock organizers retreated to lick their wounds and count their money, most potential sites were backing away from holding the festival in the future.

Sarah McLachlan decided to pull the plug on Lilith Fair for very different reasons. She felt that the festival she started three years ago to prove that an all women festival lineup could be a moneymaker had run its course.

Lilith Fair quickly became one of rock's highest-grossing concert events, featuring many of the best known female rock artists. But it's not been without its detractors, and many of those critics have been women performers. One of the main problems has been Lilith's focus on white singer-songwriters in the folk and rock traditions. Organizers have said that they have been turned down by edgier artists. Long a critic, Courtney Love and her band Hole signed on, then off again without explanation, and L7, an all-woman punk band, hired a plane trailing the banner "Bored? Try L7" to fly over one Lilith Fair venue.

Many of the attempts to bring more artists of color onto the bill have smacked of tokenism, and for female musicians who exist outside the mainstream, Lilith represents the triumph of the goody-goody girls, whose safe, somewhat ethereal music doesn't challenge the standard notions of how women players should present themselves. Even my beloved Spice Girls would seem too raucous here.
Unlike the testosterone-fueled Woodstock, the atmosphere at Lilith was a sweet and gentle one. On the main stage, performers frequently guested on each others' sets and the camaraderie, which seems quite genuine and touching, extended out into the audience. Gay and straight women wandered around arm in arm, girls in angel wings and stick-on "girls rule" tattoos floated by. There were younger sisters, older mothers and the occasional boy in makeup and a dress. Booths for the National Organization for Women and animal rights groups attracted small crowds and signed up new members.

As with all these large sponsor-driven events, the contradictions were everywhere and political incorrectness poked its head out at every opportunity. If anyone thought it ironic that Biore (makers of beauty products) funded the Association for Anorexia Nervosa's literature, or that Camel cigarette representatives handed out promotional packs of cigarettes close to the booth for the Campaign Against Breast Cancer, they weren't saying. After all, there was shopping to be done at the Lilith Village, where concertgoers could browse the huge array of posters, jewelry and other paraphernalia.

Compared to Liliths in other cities, Chicago's lineup was an uninspired affair. Liz Phair, Cibo Matto, Mya, Queen Latifah and the Pretenders weren't on the Chicago bill, and with the exception of the Dixie Chicks' sassy, high-energy set and Sheryl Crow and Susan Tedeschi's impressive musical chops, all three stages featured insipid folk-tinged music. The smaller stages were missed opportunities for risk taking -- this is where grrl rock bands like the Donnas or Sleater-Kinney could have created some much-needed variety. I longed for something unruly -- something that said it's okay to be hairy and witchy and mad. Even the "womyn's" fairs of the '70s, with their drum circles and cervical inspections, started to seem appealing.

Ideally Lilith would find room for mavericks like Yoko Ono, Bjork and PJ Harvey, even Patti Smith--women who are respected not only because they trash musical conventions but also because they play around with the idea of femininity itself.
Of course that's expecting too much; Lilith Fair is, after all, just a well-coordinated, highly-commercialized rock event, coated with the thinnest veneer of liberal feminism. But as we were subjected to yet another song about angels during Sarah McLachlan's closing set, I wished we could invoke some of the spirit of Woodstock '99, and take all those Biore beauty products, tie-dye T-shirts and Camel cigarettes and light a huge bonfire. Then as the flames rose up, all the women would dance around it howling at the moon like crazed banshees.
That's my kind of Lilith!

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