Emily Saliers has played everywhere from Berlin to Baltimore. She’s had massive sold-out crowds sing her own lyrics back to her in unison. She even knows what the view is like from the podium at the Grammys. As one half of the Indigo Girls, Saliers has a long list of musical memories. But one of her most potent recollections involves the first time she ever heard Heart’s “Magic Man.” The 12-year-old Saliers was immediately blown away by the sound of Ann Wilson’s ferocious shouts. To hear a woman singing in that powerful, seductive, and distinctively rock ’n’ roll way “made me feel scared,” Saliers says. “It was weird.”
The thrill of that feeling not only led Saliers to count Heart as one of her favorite bands of all time; it also encouraged her to play music herself, which she began doing in earnest as a high-school student with Amy Ray back in 1980. Saliers and Ray have been playing together ever since, racking up decades of musical experiences, but when Saliers talks about her first listen to Heart’s song as a preteen she still sounds awestruck. She credits that song as having had such a lasting impact on her because it was one of the first times that she experienced a female musician being a strong, gutsy participant, not just a bystander.
Years later, when the Indigo Girls were invited to play at the inaugural Lilith Fair in 1997, Saliers had a chance to show a new generation of girls that women could hold a participatory role in music. The touring music festival, co-founded by Sarah McLachlan, brought an all-female lineup of musicians to venues across the United States and Canada. Saliers was excited about the prospect of an all-women’s concert, but she remembers there being plenty of naysayers who didn’t think that the shows would sell. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s just stupid. This show’s going to kick ass,’” Saliers says. And she was right.
That year, Lilith raked in $16 million, making it the highest-grossing tour of 1997. The festival also shared the wealth: By the end of its initial three-year run, Lilith had raised $10 million for local and national women’s charities, thanks to the festival’s policy of donating one dollar from every ticket sold. “[Lilith] was one for the women. It really was,” Saliers says.
Lilith Fair ended its summer series in 1999, but in 2008 the festival’s founders began to talk about bringing it back in 2010. The plans came to fruition, and the Indigo Girls were invited to play Lilith again. They performed in three shows, but while Saliers says she had a great time, she couldn’t help noticing the empty seats in the crowd. “To me, [this year’s Lilith] felt quieter,” she says. After taking an 11-year break, Lilith Fair did not receive a warm welcome back this summer. The show’s organizers were forced to cancel 13 of the 36 planned tour stops due to soft ticket sales, and the cancellations led some of the traveling festival’s bigger names, including Norah Jones and Kelly Clarkson, to drop off the tour.
Lilith Fair was not alone in its touring woes. As reported by the industry trade publication Pollstar, the top one hundred tours for the first six months of 2010 had a combined take 17 percent lower than in the same period last year. Some shows from this year did still manage to come across as success stories. Coachella, the three-day indie rock festival in Indio, California, was the top-grossing show in Pollstar’s analysis, bringing in $21.7 million in ticket sales. But the majority of concerts were said to have taken financial hits because of the “current economic conditions.” Although the losses on large tours were proportionately greater than those experienced by smaller projects, the dip in ticket sales appeared to be “affecting all markets regardless of size,” according to Pollstar.
Yet despite this seemingly universal decline, Lilith still attracted far more negative media attention than other financially weak summer shows. “Lilith was picked on,” says Terry McBride, CEO of the Nettwerk Music Group and one of Lilith’s cofounders. McBride admits that this year’s Lilith made at least $6 million less than it did in its inaugural year in 1997, but he sees Lilith’s poor ticket sales as no different from the low sales of other summer concerts this year. “Everyone was affected,” McBride says.
But the media were quick to single out Lilith as the biggest failure of the summer season. The rampant cancellations were among the reasons listed in countless articles that smacked down the festival. Some critics also suggested that one of Lilith’s biggest mistakes was that its image as an all-female show of predominantly singer-songwriters was out of date. McBride insists that the show’s planners in 1997 had no fixed image of who would perform at the show, only that they would be female. “The only goal we’ve ever had is to put together a festival of women musicians,” he says. Lilith might not have intended to fix itself with the folk-rock image it still carries today. But with artists like Joan Osborne, Paula Cole, and Shawn Colvin playing the main stage in its first year, it’s not surprising that the media tagged Lilith as a hippie festival for the modern-day woman.
That image did not hinder Lilith at its inception. As Marisa Meltzer, author of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, explains, Lilith naturally fit into the changing musical currents for women in the 1990s. Meltzer’s history starts with the music scene of the 1980s, which “was all about the pop diva,” a category that included performers like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, she says. It was a space that left little room for other types of female artists, while still allowing male artists to occupy the majority of space in all music scenes. The riot grrrl movement of the early ’90s came about in part as a response to this gender exclusion. But the rejection of the mainstream—whether a record label or a magazine—by the hard-rocking, pro-feminism artists involved in riot grrrl prevented the movement from spreading beyond its centers in Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington.
Most of the riot grrrl groups had disbanded by around 1994. They were replaced by female artists like Liz Phair and Hole, musicians who, while often cutting, had a little less bite to their feminism than those involved in riot grrrl and had no aversion to the mainstream. By 1995, Alanis Morrisette was sending her alternative rock songs on Jagged Little Pill up the pop charts, with Fiona Apple following her in 1996 with the more quietly provocative Tidal. But what had started as the emergence of female artists who were what Meltzer calls “slightly more mainstream iterations” of riot grrrl musicians transitioned in 1997 to women playing a more “earnest strain of music.”
In the first summer of Lilith’s existence, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan were rivaling Wu-Tang and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on the Billboard Top 200, while Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch” and Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” held fast on the Billboard Hot 100. A certain brand of feminism was en vogue, one that celebrated so-called girl power but was far more digestible to the public than anything promoted by riot grrrl. The music coming from these artists was often as soft and listener-friendly as the message itself. Feminism was suddenly becoming a hot commodity, one picked up on even by mainstream pop acts like the Spice Girls.
Just one look at this summer’s Billboard charts shows that times have changed since then. In the week of Lilith’s opening in 2010, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha all had singles on the Hot 100, while Christina Aguilera’s Bionic and Gaga’s The Fame sat in the first clump of albums on the Top 200. McLachlan’s latest LP made an appearance on that chart, but it was ousted after only two weeks. With so many pop starlets rolling around Billboard, it did not seem like the prime time for the reemergence of the media-dubbed women’s hippie festival. “That Ms. McLachlan and Lilith Fair executives would choose this summer to bring back the tour was perhaps a doomed decision from the start,” wrote Jon Caramanica in a New York Times article. “Everywhere you look, pop has gone Gaga.”
Perhaps this explains why Lilith tried to shake up this year’s lineup by adding more performers who fell outside of the predominantly white, singer-songwriter group. The festival’s original lineup of artists from this year intermingled performers like Suzanne Vega and Beth Orton with Janelle Monae and the Gossip. Injecting some variety into the mix seemed like a good way for Lilith to keep itself timely and draw in new fans. But instead it drew criticism for no longer having the kind of consistent “brand” that brought out a certain type of concert attendee in the 1990s. As Amanda Hess, former writer of the Washington City Paper’s the Sexist blog, said on WNYC’s Lilith-themed Soundcheck episode, “In diversifying the lineup, I think they’re alienating their base and then not really getting a core group of women who are interested in a particular type of music to come fill those seats now.”
Statements like this seem representative of the media reception the revived Lilith Fair was destined to receive, no matter which way it turned. But as the Indigo Girls’ Saliers can attest, 2010—its pop diva-filled musical landscape looking eerily similar to that of Meltzer’s description of the 1980s—might not have been the best cultural time for the return of Lilith. Nevertheless, she is quick to point out that the need for a supportive environment for female artists has not disappeared despite the success of some women musicians. “Rock music is still a man’s world, and girls and women need mentors,” she says. While playing fields in many other areas of life have been leveled for females, “that has not happened in music,” Saliers says. “The feminist movement is not over.” McBride and the rest of Lilith’s founders agree: Plans are already in the works to tour Lilith again next summer.
Christine Werthman is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn.