In July 1997, Time magazine made a striking declaration on its cover: “Macho music is out. Empathy is in.” In its accompanying story, writer Christopher John Earley personified summer in America as if it was a specific kind of man, likening the months of July and August to displays of masculine mania one would’ve witnessed at an outdoor alt-rock show: “muscular bare-chested frat boys, the sharp, scabbed elbows, the clomping Reeboked feet…” But, “What if summer were different?” Earley questioned, imploring readers to imagine a more feminist season, before introducing the woman who would attempt to make it so. Her medium for performing such an onerous task? Lilith Fair, a special string of concerts that made its debut in the late-nineties and quickly became the top-grossing touring festival of the moment.
Twenty-five years later, it might be difficult to envision a summer night spent on the sprawling lawn of a local amphitheater, a space where the beer was cheap and camaraderie amongst the crowd cost even less, as a cadre of the most sought-after female and femme artists took the stage to spur a supernova the stuff of musical lore. Perhaps you don’t have to exert as much effort as someone of a younger generation. Maybe you can recall it from memory. Such was Lilith Fair.
“When you look back at the lineup, it just kind of had everyone you could possibly imagine,” music journalist and author of Her Country, Marissa R. Moss, told Jezebel in a phone interview. “It showed clearly the massive appetite for music from women, and the ability to sell massive amounts of tickets and alcohol and whatever else you need to sell to put on a profitable festival.”
The brainchild of Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, Lilith Fair is fondly remembered for convening the likes of the Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Queen Latifah, Fiona Apple, Tracy Chapman, and Erykah Badu, and has been credited with spring-boarding the careers of Missy Elliott, Christina Aguilera, and a host of others. Today, however, the stars of the festival might be a vinyl body-suited and booted Megan Thee Stallion, punctuating her blustering bars before a sky-high graphic reminding all to “Protect Black Women”—0r maybe Phoebe Bridgers, clad in her signature skeleton suit, would make an appearance and call the Supreme Court “irrelevant old motherfuckers” before launching into “Kyoto.” Better yet, perhaps the pair would find a way to share a set, because that kind of collaboration was ineluctable to the Lilith ether. Of course, these are only hypotheticals.
Lilith Fair abruptly ended after 1999, and though there was a mildly successful revival in 2010, canceled performers and a reported lag in sales on the heels of the recession tempered hopes for a modern run. It is unclear, when the music industry is more saturated with socially and politically outspoken female and femme artists, and the desire for the same onstage statements that almost cancelled the Chicks seems insatiable, why there hasn’t been another festival of its distinction. But, one thing is certain: The industry might not always be kind to artists who refuse to just “shut up and sing,” but there will always be a need for them.
In 1996, long before she lent “Angel” to what would become the most successful ASPCA advertisement in history, Sarah McLachlan wrote a note to folk singer Suzanne Vega, as Vega recounted in Glamour’s 2017 oral history of Lilith Fair: “I’m thinking of having a kind of girly show next year.”
As the story goes, the 28-year-old McLachlan was a success story in mid-nineties pop music, with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, her third and most recent album, having received stellar reception. And yet, she was frustrated. The music industry was—as it remains to be—largely dominated by men: radio jockeys who wouldn’t play two female artists back-to-back, event promoters convinced that more than one woman on a bill couldn’t sell, and nationally respected journalists that didn’t cover up-and-comers. She knew they were wrong and set out to prove as much.
According to Vanity Fair’s 2019 oral history of Lilith Fair, co-authored by music critic and writer Jessica Hopper, McLachlan first conducted a test-run in 1996, playing four shows alongside fellow flourishing artists like Vega, Tracy Chapman, and Paula Cole. Inevitably, McLachlan’s hypothesis that strength in numbers sold proved substantive. Each date sold thousands of tickets and easily drew crowds with little to no promotion, from the Heartland to the Pacific coast. “People were saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ Well, we did…and people came,” McLachlan recalled to Vanity Fair.
Prior to the test-run, McLachlan’s contingent were mostly gate-kept from venues that could comfortably hold thousands of revelers, and instead were relegated to theaters and auditoriums that limited their reach. “If people are going to keep putting you in big theaters, and you’re doing like, three nights in a big theater instead of 15,000 seaters, people are keeping you from making a fucking living and growing in the way that you need to,” Hopper explained to Jezebel in a recent phone call. “These women were really being kept from capitalizing on their careers and connecting with their fans by the industry writ-large. And so, they go out, they show that they are basically in a giant gang together, they don’t give a shit what you think, they’re gonna go on this tour, and it’s going to make more money than anything but Garth Brooks in the nineties.”
Soon after, McLachlan and two dozen others began to conceptualize Lilith, forming a setlist that would draw anyone from a weathered, working-class white woman from Ohio to a queer Black Gen-Xer from Washington state. It was anything but easy, and artists were skeptical. McLachlan’s idea seemed “corny” to some, like Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach told Vanity Fair, and a risk to others, whose managers fancied a slot in an entirely female festival named for a disobedient wife in Jewish folklore a career death knell. In the end, the team managed to nab Sheryl Crow, Jewel, the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, Lisa Loeb, India.Arie, and a roster of relatively unknown talent.
“The first year, it wasn’t very diverse musically, ethnically, racially. We got a lot of flak for that. But we asked everybody. This is who said yes,” McLachlan said.
“There was definitely a lot more divide between the genres, and there was some real skepticism from people who were more within the R&B world,” said Hopper. “But the Indigo Girls did tell me a story: About midway though the first tour, they sat down with Sarah and were like, ‘You really have to double-down on your efforts to make this more diverse and more inclusive for different kinds of artists.’ And they really advocated for that.”
Even without a range of artistry, the first Lilith tour garnered a $16 million gross—and its early triumph laid the foundation for more intersectional line-ups, and two more consecutive runs. “Some of the women of color who performed said, ‘You know, it really wasn’t very diverse, but I was interested in the broader aims and broader goals of Lilith, and never in my career had I felt more accepted and appreciated,’” said Hopper.
Finally, here was evidence that even if it wasn’t perfect, a 35-city tour of more than 50 exclusively female and femme artists could be executed and, in fact, excel.
Lilith Fair found its footing in its second and third year, with McLachlan telling the Hartford Courant in 1998 that booking became “a lot easier” after the festival proved itself in its debut. For some, the Fair would remain the butt of a wearied joke—an Onion headline circa 1998 likened it to the “Largest-Ever Synchronized Ovulation”—though that mattered little to its organizers, headliners, and attendees. Unsullied by men who organized, played, and crowded into other golden goose festivals like Lollapalooza, it became, as one attendee told Vanity Fair, “a girls’ bathroom in a bar at like one in the morning, where every girl you encounter in the bathroom is your best friend.” That atmosphere, as it’s been told, surpassed the audience, which had swelled up to over 40,000 people. It was thriving backstage, too.
Bonnie Raitt and her “sister soul mate” Queen Latifah became fast friends. McLachlan flashed Chrissie Hynde her boobs. A 20-year-old Mýa covered the Bee Gees,’ “Islands in the Stream.” Erykah Badu’s children came along for the ride. Many of the artists watched each other’s sets—sometimes in disguises so as not to distract attendees. There were nightly jam sessions on buses and in dressing rooms, and onstage sing-alongs. Sheryl Crow brought her yoga instructor and impelled her good pal Prince to join her onstage for just one of many performances people still remember.
“I think it was literally like the second or third date of the tour that Sinead O’Connor and Erykah Badu were on stage together, singing on each other’s songs. Like, what wouldn’t I do to see that?” said Hopper. “These sorts of things became really commonplace.”
Lilith Fair likewise created a space that stood for something more than just proving female and femme artists were worth paying attention to; it made attendees feel respected, empowered, and a vital part of something bigger than themselves. Much of that was achieved through the same social and political causes championed by modern mainstream mavens like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish, as fundamental to the Fair as the music.
At each show, Lilith asked organizations like Lifebeat, RAINN, and the Breast Cancer Fund to set up booths. No organization drew quite as much outside ire as Planned Parenthood, with whom the Fair maintained a relationship. As singer-songwriter Joan Osborne recalled to Vanity Fair, one venue—in Texas, naturally—fought the festival on its affiliation with the pro-choice organization and told the artists they weren’t permitted to tout their support onstage. McLachlan was also grilled by a journalist as to why anti-abortion groups weren’t given a table when they too had shown up. She was succinct in her answer when recounting the story to Vanity Fair: “I don’t agree with their principles. And it’s my festival. And I get to choose.”
Osborne, too, remained undeterred: “My band went to the Planned Parenthood booth. We got Support Planned Parenthood T-shirts, and we all went out onstage wearing them—shouted them out from the stage.”
That wasn’t all for the Fair’s specific brand of activism. McLachlan worked with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, donating $1 from the sale of each ticket to a local women’s domestic violence shelter.
“Sarah McLachlan gave $10 million to domestic violence shelters, literally one town at a time,” Hopper recalled to Jezebel. “Sometimes the amounts were $50,000 or $60,000, and sometimes, they would give them in secret because these places needed to be kept secret to protect women. That’s fucking radical.”
“Those checks were sometimes the difference between the shelters staying open or closing down,” Terry McBride, McLachlan’s manager and co-founder of the festival, remembered to Glamour.
The environment such stances helped to establish was—and, in many ways, is—radical for a music festival, too. Woodstock ‘99 set a dangerous precedent for the threats a modern festival could pose for attendees, particularly women and femmes, with riots, death, and sexual assault. Even now, scores of woman and femme concert-goers are sexually assaulted or harassed at events like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Stagecoach, Bonnaroo, and Glastonbury. The politics of the people bankrolling such festivals, too, are questionable. A recent Rolling Stone investigation revealed the Anschutz Corporation—the company behind dozens of popular music festivals like Coachella—has made annual donations to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) since 2014. RAGA has long been committed to an anti-abortion agenda, with one of its members integral to the legal strategy driving Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case that successfully reversed Roe.
“Festival culture is just so toxic,” Brittany Spanos, senior writer at Rolling Stone, told Jezebel. “I think a lot of women would say they’ve had some sort of unsafe situations, and a lot of queer people have had some unsafe situations, and people of color have had some really unsafe situations at festivals, and it’s hard to ignore.”
For artists too, life on tour presented unique perils. Not at Lilith. Backstage, there was always a place for new mothers to breastfeed, trustworthy people to mind small children who were brought along, and road warriors willing to dole out advice to relative newcomers. It would be simple to assume that the festival gave the allusion of—as the aforementioned attendee put it, a “girls’ bathroom”—solely because men didn’t comprise a significant portion of its demographic. However, because many men were there, it’s likely more accurate to assume that engineering the safety specific to Lilith was quite simply prioritized, given that women were predominantly at the helm.
“Safe space is something that we’re still trying to foster and kind of hold it up as an ideal, and it’s like wait—this was accomplished three summers in a row with the biggest names in music,” Hopper said of the Fair to NPR earlier this year.
As Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who attended Lilith Fair at 16 years old, recalled in Hopper’s oral history: “I remember if my shoulders were getting red, there’d be somebody there with some sunscreen. End of the day, I’m walking up to the vendor, and the same woman’s working, and she’s like, ‘You really shouldn’t get another Mountain Dew. It’s really time for you to switch to water.’”
There’s no one reason Lilith came to an end. According to Hopper, some of the artists—McLachlan included—wanted to start a family, or simply to get off the road for a little while, as much as they might have seen the importance in continuing.
“I think it was just such a Herculean effort, and people needed a break,” Hopper said. “Also, I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that they would have entrusted with anybody else. It was something that really had people’s passion, and it was just so, so big by the end. They didn’t want it to fall apart, so it was kind of like ‘go out on a high note,’ rather than burn out on this thing.”
By the time McLachlan and some of the artists involved in the original Lilith Fair began trying to execute a revival, the economy was in a state of precarity post-Great Recession, and the industry had other priorities.
“It was the timing, the economy, the state of touring—all of those things. Sarah was in her 40s when she revived it, so sort of the blowback women at midlife always get, like, ‘How dare you think you can be the center of anything—you’re a woman past your prime,’” NPR music critic Ann Powers told Vanity Fair. Lilith Fair 2010 happened, bringing back headliners like Sheryl Crow and Erykah Badu (and adding Mary J. Blige, as well as pulling Brandi Carlile from the audience onto the stage), but it was still largely white and mono-genre. There was no Lilith Fair 2011. Today, despite discernible strides for women and femmes, there’s a Lilith-sized hole in the music industry.
Politically, very little has changed since the Chicks publicly criticized then-president George W. Bush in 2003. Should one require evidence of the fact there’s no shortage of policies for an artist to lend their platform to, take Glastonbury: Following the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the festival became a bonafide protest, with scores of popular female artists using their sets to speak out in opposition. Vice President Kamala Harris and Keke Palmer dropped by Essence Fest earlier this month to talk about abortion bans, Black maternal mortality, and voting rights. Additionally, in solidarity with victims of gun violence, Pat Benatar recently announced she’d no longer perform “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” at live shows.
The industry produces plenty of its own harms, too. Statistics show women and non-binary people remain largely without the same opportunities for representation and compensation afforded to white, cisgender men. According to Amplify Her Voice, an annual study found that women comprise just 12.6 percent of songwriters, 21.6 percent of artists, and 2.6 percent of producers. The findings for women across executive and business roles are no less dismal, with a mere 6.7 percent maintaining roles in live music, and 7.1 percent in streaming. The most commercially successful females and femmes in the industry face their own challenges—namely, Kesha and Megan Thee Stallion, who are both currently embroiled in legal battles against men who wield serious power behind the scenes and among fans. Taylor Swift is gradually re-recording and releasing her first six albums after the rights were bought and sold without her consent by Scooter Braun for several hundred million dollars.
This year, online database #BookMoreWomen found that all-male acts currently make up two-thirds of major music festival lineups in the country. Austin City Limits touts the highest percentage of women and non-binary booked this year; nevertheless, it’s still less than half: 48 percent. Last November, Charlie Jones, the veteran music executive behind Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, announced Versa Experience, an entirely women-led festival touting a lineup that included Chelsea Handler, Ellie Goulding, Liz Phair, Gloria Steinem, and Ilana Glazer, to be held earlier this summer. But as the festival drew closer, it was canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances.” (Jones could not be reached for comment.)
“Every major festival—for years now, there are constant reports and articles pointing this out—never has female headliners. Artists who are not straight, white men or bands that aren’t led by straight, white men tend to be sidelined a lot and put lower on the totem pole,” said Spanos. “I think the success of a lot of rap and hip hop festivals have allowed space for more Black artists to at least get more top-billing, but it took years for a lot of major festivals to see them as marketable in the way that white rock bands are.”
Such purported lack of marketability has empowered artists to manifest the kind of lineups their fans want to see, with mainstream musicians like Kacey Musgraves treating their tours as an occasion to ask less commercially successful—and far more diverse—artists like Yola, King Princess, and Muna to open for them. Jason Isbell featured seven Black women in his 2021 Nashville residency. Carlile, too, has served as a paradigm for curating onstage experiences akin to the Fair, like the recent Newport Folk Festival wherein she invited Joni Mitchell to publicly perform for the first time since her 2015 brain aneurysm. In 2019, after she was axed from what became an entirely male-fronted tour, Carlile took it upon herself to architect an annual destination concert experience marketed toward women, Girls Just Wanna Weekend, which has since convened some of the Fair’s favorites, like Sheryl Crow, the Indigo Girls, and Patty Griffin, along with burgeoning artists like the Highwomen co-founder Maren Morris. (The Highwomen themselves have shared their stage with Maggie Rogers, Dolly Parton, Yola, and others.)
“People are paying thousands of dollars to go to Mexico for four days, just to see only women play. It’s a different thing than Lilith Fair, but it shows that there’s obviously appetite for it,” Moss said.
In the midst of what Earley deemed a macho season, McLachlan and co. imagined three feminist summers. After nearly three decades, and little progress, perhaps it’s time to try again.
“Audiences crave not only the solidarity of femme and female artists, but they want to be able to see them headline, and have control of their own music and festivals,” said Spanos. “The influence and impact of the artists that helped to build Lilith Fair is very apparent in the music now. There are so many rising and popular singer-songwriters and pop stars and bands that really owe a lot to the artists that created and made Lilith Fair what it was.”
Lilith Fair has many times been mourned as if it’s a relic of a time gone by, but it’s more important to imagine it as a foretelling of what could, and should, be now.