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:
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.
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