To hear Sarah McLachlan tell it, coming up with the concept behind the summer's hottest tour was really no big deal. "If I hadn't done it, somebody else would have," she says of Lilith Fair, the roving women's music festival that arrives at the Merriweather Post Pavilion this Tuesday. "I'm just glad I did."
So are the fans. In a season awash in rock and funk festivals -- Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Smokin' Grooves, Warped, Ozzfest, the Furthur Fest and Jamizon, to name but a few -- the Lilith Fair is by far the most successful, playing to packed houses while others face empty seats. It's the concept, not the lineup, that sells the show, for even though the bill varies from show to show (McLachlan is the only constant), the sales are consistent across America.
Why is Lilith batting 1.000 when many of her brethren are striking out?
Some of it may have to do with the growing sense of empowerment female pop fans have gained, as stars like Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Erykah Badu, the Spice Girls, Courtney Love, Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt have taken over the boy's club of rock and roll.
Or maybe young women have just gotten tired of summer festivals dominated by bands who appeal mainly to shirtless, sweaty frat boys in the mosh pit.
It's probably a combination of the two. And because McLachlan was the first to act on the need for an affair like Lilith, she's become the most popular woman in rock.
"It's strange, this popularity," says McLachlan, over the phone from her Vancouver, British Columbia, home. "I'm not sure it's anything I ever should get very comfortable with."
But she's certainly enjoying the visibility. "I've actually been laughing a lot about all this amazing press," she says. "People magazine, Us magazine, Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly. It's hilarious. I did this interview [recently], where I said, 'I would never be talking to you if I was just putting out my own record.' "
She laughs, and adds, "By the way, I do have an album coming out " Indeed, her third album, "Surfacing," arrived in stores just 10 days after the tour's July 5 kickoff in Seattle, and sold 161,000 copies in its first week, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. It's quite a start, considering that McLachlan's wispy, art/folk sound remains as tunefully understated as when she made her considerably less commercial debut with "Solace" five years ago.
Lilith Fair's appeal
But Lilith Fair isn't just a promotional vehicle. It's a cultural hot point, an event so absolutely of the moment that its appeal goes beyond the limitations of music marketing.
Like most touring festivals, the Lilith Fair features a main and secondary stage as well as a "village" of shops and information booths that has its own third stage. Musically, though, it's another breed entirely.
Where other festivals are largely structured on a specific musical style -- alternarock at Lollapalooza, thrash at Warped, jam bands at H.O.R.D.E., etc. -- Lilith is defined entirely by gender. As the tour wends its way across America, its offerings include everything from lounge-style alternarockers the Cardigans to populist folkie Jewel (both of whom are on the bill at Merriweather), from country star Mary Chapin Carpenter to jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.
In fact, the only obvious absence is R&B; and rap -- but not intentionally. According to the tour's organizers, a number of such acts were approached for the tour, but declined to participate.
Most artists, though, leapt at the chance to join. "I definitely wanted to be a part of it," says veteran singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, who will be playing the third stage at Merriweather on Tuesday. "Even though I'm on the Borders Bookstore Stage, and I think I'm only playing for 15 minutes. But I don't care. I'm just glad to be there.
"What I think is nice about Lilith is that I've been around for a long time, and know how it was [in the music business] for female artists," Sobule adds, from her home in New York. "When I got dropped from MCA in 1990 and tried to get another deal, record companies would say, 'Oh, we would love to sign you, but we already have a female artist.' You know, like we're all alike."
Sobule, of course, sees female musicians as individuals, every bit as much as male musicians. But at the same time, she admits that the songs she writes tend to take a different focus from male writers' songs.
"I try to write about things that people don't address in songs, and maybe a good deal of the time it's things that women go through," she says. "For instance, I've got a song called 'Barren Egg,' which is kind of the biological clock song. That's not a real 'rock' topic."
Men, she says, stick to typical rock topics to avoid being considered "wimpy" singer/songwriters. "So a lot of alternative male songwriters still deal with this kind of adolescent sex and love thing," says Sobule.
"Lilith is a celebration of the fact that women are finally having a really strong voice," says McLachlan. "I think that's something definitely worth celebrating -- for men and women. It's not at all about excluding men."
Still, it's not as if everything is equal between the two. "To say that there isn't sexism in the business is incredibly naive," says McLachlan. "I've been very lucky, because I've had not much to do with it.
"But I know it exists. When I first put out 'Fumbling Toward Ecstasy' three years ago, there was this total competition between me and Tori Amos. It had nothing to do with us -- it was totally to do with the radio stations and record companies pitting us against each other. Because there was this thing at radio stations, where they would say, 'Well, we added Tori this week, so we can't add you.'"
Even now, McLachlan seems appalled. "It was very marginalizing," she fumes. "What are you saying? That we sounded alike? You would never say, 'Oh, we added Nirvana this week, so we can't add Pearl Jam.' It was really stupid. It was like people were living by these old rules, like they were resigned to them, or didn't even think about what was going on and how ludicrous it was."
That has changed considerably in the past two years, thanks in large part to the hard-won success of artists like McLachlan, Amos, Love and Crow. Fiona Apple, whose warm, throaty voice and jazzy, confessional songs have made her a sort of alternarock Nina Simone, doesn't feel that she has had to endure the kind of institutionalized sexism her predecessors faced.
"Any problems I've had haven't had to do with me being a girl, I don't think," she says, from a tour stop in Akron, Ohio. "I got lucky, and everyone kind of opened the doors before me."
But that doesn't mean Apple has been entirely spared the burden of sexism. She has, for example, been called to task for her current video, "Criminal," which finds the singer at various points lounging in her underwear and soaking naked in the bath. It's hardly the most salacious clip in rotation at MTV, but because Apple is just 19, some pundits have suggested that she's being exploited by the video.
Patent nonsense, says the singer. "And you know what? I also think that it's not just the fact that I'm young, but probably because I'm a woman," she adds. "That if I'm showing any part of my body, [or the video] shows any kind of sexuality, then it's got to be against my will.
"But the truth is that the images in the video reflect the meaning of the song, which is about being part of a kind of deviant way of doing things, feeling guilty about it but still enjoying it. And if you want to know the truth, that's exactly how I felt making the video. There is this kind of strange, sick joy in that kind of exhibitionism. Which is exactly what the song is about," she says. "I kind of look like I'm being tortured up there, but you know that I'm really kind of enjoying it."
Helping to break down gender stereotypes -- unrealistic notions of what good girls do, or how real men act -- is one of McLachlan's most cherished goals, and not just because of the way such thinking works against women.
"I totally believe that men and women both have the short end of the stick," she says. "Men have a lot of really hard issues that they have to work through. I mean, your fathers and their fathers before you believed that you've got to be strong and keep your emotions hidden -- it's so unhealthy! But that's what men are taught, and until that nasty pattern starts changing, men are having a horrible time with it."
Breaking that cycle isn't about assigning blame, but getting to the root of the problem.
"It's the pattern, and it won't be broken until someone can look beyond that," says McLachlan. "And mostly, that's done through love -- which is going to sound really corny. But it's really true. If you can just forgive people "
She laughs nervously. "I'm worried about giving a bad impression, that I'm a shallow thinker," she says. "Explaining this would take, like, hours."
That's OK. Explaining why, exactly, Lilith Fair works as well as it does would doubtless take even longer. But the fact is, it does. Isn't that enough?
What: Lilith Fair, featuring Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, the Cardigans, Joan Osborne, Fiona Apple and others
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Tickets: Sold out
Call: 410-730-2424 for information
Hear the music
To hear excerpts from artists performing at the Lilith Fair, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6112. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 7/27/97