Sarah McLachlan has only herself to blame. After all, in a country where Baywatch can pass as high drama, her idea to put together Lilith Fair, a pop music road extravaganza spotlighting women artists, was bound to score inordinate media attention on pertinent issues such as goddess worship, sex, lesbianism, sex, man-hating and, of course, sex.
Fortunately for us, McLachlan's vision was always about the music. So while Lilith Fair -- subtitled "A Celebration of Women in Music" -- is very much the summer's big tour success, outshining and outdrawing everything from R.O.A.R. to Lollapalooza to H.O.R.D.E., it's easy to understand how McLachlan would be irritated by some of the inanities that have been attached to the event thus far. (Come on now, "Gal-apallooza"?)
For every article discussing Lilith Fair's artistic merits, several others exploit the chick angle. Take, for example, the recent wisp of a cover story in Entertainment Weekly that featured a roundtable-type discussion with tour headliners McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Joan Osborne, and Fiona Apple. What could have been an intelligent discussion about women artists' recent and unprecedented domination of the charts and airwaves came off after editing as little more than slumber-party gossip -- prettiness as a marketing ploy, songs about old boyfriends, et cetera.
"I understand that [the press] needs interesting copy, but this whole 'women in rock' thing and how much that's being played up -- obviously there's still so much sexism in the world that we can't just be called a great bill of music," McLachlan says. "That the coverage is about all women performing isn't in itself bad. It's just the way it's sensationalized."
Of course, any time several female pop superstars are gathered in one place, a certain amount of sexuality is going to come into play. But the remarkable aspect of Lilith Fair is its representation of the best things happening in music today. The tour consists of a rotating carousel of more than 61 artists, the aforementioned acts plus Paula Cole, Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Juliana Hatfield, and on and on.
While the Lilith bill covers a range of styles, from mainstream country to impressionistic folk to modern rock, the musicians' distinctly feminist stamp is inarguable. To listen to Jewel's multiplatinum Pieces of You, or McLachlan's latest CD, Surfacing, or Cole's hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" is to hear a melding of various precedents: the Joan Baez/Bob Dylan school of acute lyrical awareness, the lush etherealness born of the likes of Kate Bush and Enya, the country-sophisticate leanings of k.d. lang, the time-honored tradition of Lennon and McCartney popcraft.
Even when the media don't seem particularly interested in delving into each artist's techniques and influences, these details aren't lost on the performers. Which is part of the reason that McLachlan has insisted in including such a diverse mix of lineups throughout the course of Lilith Fair. That, of course, has led to its own problems. But when you consider the potential logistical problems of a tour on which only one headliner, McLachlan, is performing at all of the 35 dates, Lilith Fair seems to be cruising along with remarkable ease. "It's gone so ridiculously smoothly that I can't believe it," McLachlan says. "There have been no fights. There's no weirdness. The energy's fantastic."
McLachlan concedes that she was initially worried that, with the constant turnover in acts, she would spend more time orienting newcomers than concentrating on her own performances. But the role of host is one she has come to relish: "I don't mind it at all. I mean, it's sweet because a couple of days ago a bunch of the artists left -- like Tracy Bonham -- and it's sad. But then new people come in and you get to know them, and it's really cool."
That coming-and-going aspect was, after all, part of the idea when McLachlan came up with Lilith. "I just thought wouldn't it be nice to put together a festival showcasing all these great new singer/songwriters, women who are making music these days," she says. "And it kinda became the huge thing that it is, largely because of my two managers and my agent, who absolutely took the ball and ran with it."
As it turns out, once it came time to implement the concept, the artists were a surprisingly easy sell, even in Lilith's formative stages. According to Newsweek, almost 600 artists wanted slots on the tour. Fans have proved equally enthusiastic. Thus far crowds have been SRO. The festival features two main stages and, at most venues, a third stage sponsored by Borders Books & Music that highlights unsigned but promising artists.
"One of the nice possibilities of this," McLachlan says, "is to try to give young artists a step up, you know; a chance to play in front of a lot of people. They'll have records out one day, and maybe someone who went to Lilith Fair will remember."
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Given the good response, it seems almost certain that the fair will become an annual event. And if the only thing missing from this year's party is male entertainers, well, that could change. McLachlan notes there are several men whose spirits would mesh perfectly with the festival's philosophy: Ron Sexsmith, Peter Gabriel, Freedy Johnston, Neil Young. "Obviously, I'm aiming high here," she admits. "I mean, we haven't asked anybody yet. We've gotta get through this [tour] first."
Survival hardly seems a problem, though. And media puffery aside, the whole thing seems almost too good to be true. Still, the responsibilities of being the queen of Lilith can be overwhelming.
"Playing last after a long day of music is always challenging," McLachlan says. "It's getting toward the end [of the show] and [the audience is] thinking, 'Man, I got a two-hour drive home. How do I get out of the parking lot?' So we do the songs that get played on the radio a lot, and maybe the new singles. We're playing some really slow songs, too. I prefer playing slow songs. Everybody's being very attentive." She pauses and laughs. "At first, I thought they were falling asleep. But, thank goodness, they're just listening."
The Lilith Fair festival takes place Tuesday, December 16, starting at 4:30 p.m. at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach, 561-795-8883, with Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Luscious Jackson, the Indigo Girls, Missy Elliott, and more. Tickets cost $18.75.