The Lilith Fair

Fumbling Toward Ecstasy provided the soundtrack for my first major mourning period following a high school break-up. Every night of that fall, I put the tape — dubbed off a friend’s CD — in my Walkman and curled up, staring out the window, letting Sarah McLachlan’s richly ethereal voice sing me to sleep.

We will not discuss the fact that this mourning period most likely lasted longer than the relationship itself.

“I Will Remember You” was our prom theme. But Sarah wasn’t the only one who spoke to the collective frustrations, joys and longings of my circle of friends. We’d memorized whole albums from the Indigo Girls and Fiona Apple, and knew the recent singles from many other female artists, women who gave voice and melody to our experience. We loved “Give Me One Reason to Stay Here” and sang along — cause I’m too old to go chasing around, wasting my precious energy — without irony. We felt so deeply, and so frequently; we were old souls.

There was really no question as to whether we would go to Lilith Fair when it got to Chicago in the summer of 1997.

By the summer after my freshman year of college, I knew the names of the folks on the smaller stages as well; had seen them in tiny venues for all ages shows. At school in the northeast, I’d been introduced to Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, the Nields. Girls with guitars and something to say. There were songs for break-ups, songs of anger and songs of grief; songs about being a girl, about becoming a woman; songs about love and friendship and memory; songs about religion and politics. There were, inevitably, songs about rape.

Lilith Fair came back to Chicago this year, resurrected for 2010 after an eleven year hiatus. I didn’t go. My sister was getting married that day, but the conflict was only coincidental. I don’t have $37 plus all the Ticketmaster fees for a show that doesn’t interest my husband; don’t have a day to dedicate to a show that it would be a hassle to take my young children to.

I’m not the only one who didn’t go this year; a number of cities moved shows to smaller venues following low ticket sales. Some shows were canceled. The economy has something to do with this, of course, but I wonder if there is more to the story.

A number of media outlets have done reflective pieces asking what’s different for women in music, or for feminism, in 2010 than in 1999. Some, rather uncharitably, suggest that it’s because Lilith Fair was too white, and with the explosion of hip hop and the inclusion of rap in popular music, the “adult contemporary” sound of Sarah and her sisters has faded into the background of the pop music landscape. The New York Times said the difference was the incredible success of Lady Gaga, signaling that women didn’t need to seek out a separate audience. Female performers can be pop culture, genre-challenging, phenomena, too; the Lilith Fair niche is, apparently, irrelevant now.

Like all those who routinely pronounce the end of gender inequality and feminism, these commentators have failed to convince me. Sarah McLachlan started Lilith Fair (along with several industry collaborators) to counter the prevailing notion that a tour couldn’t open with both a female headliner and female openers and make money. It’s true that we see more shows with all female line-ups in our post-Lilith world. And yet, take for example the case of Nicki Minaj. Just last week she became the first female artist to top the rap charts in ten years. Ten years of weekly charts without a woman at the top.

I couldn’t go to Lilith this year, but its return called my attention to the release of McLachlan’s new album, which I bought more out of curiosity than anticipation. I don’t listen to the girls with guitars nearly so much anymore (unless they are singing children’s songs); the lady singer songwriters’ CDs have gathered dust. I’ve been listening to Laws of Illusion though. A few of the songs have grabbed my attention, and I recognize them now, after multiple listens, but it just doesn’t seem as good as some of her earlier albums. It’s a bit over-produced; the lyrics seem somewhat careless, the poetry is not as precise, the images are limited. There are a lot of allusions to light.

It may well be true that I am listening with different ears than I was all those years ago. I fear, though, that the greater distance I feel from this music, from these artists and this festival, is a distance from my feminist commitments, from the young woman I was and the needs of women less settled than I am. A good part of whatever success in ministry I have found has come from my ability to empathize with folks in different walks and stages of life. Listening to the stories, joys and struggles of those who have been married for 50 years, or are dealing with elderly parents, or troubled adult children, seeking to relate to those who are facing unemployment, or plateauing affections in a long relationship — these have supplanted the attention I once paid to specifically women’s issues. I’m not an urban student almost-activist anymore; I’m a suburban mom.

In truth, many of the issues those singer songwriters wrote of are yet present in the lives of my parishioners: loss and grief, hope and promise, fear and courage, vulnerability and ambivalence, individuality and community, grace and justice. And, of course, love. These are the great themes of human life and of art. Pastors and preachers are called, like artists, to give voice to these universal experiences through a number of very particular lenses. The challenge is that universality lends itself too easily to generalization, and particularity tends toward an isolating subjectivity.

The Gospel speaks of the intersection of the universal and the particular: the infinite God, the God of all time and all things, who comes to live in an individual, a body, in a given time and place. The Good News is that the universal love of God is known in particular human lives. Christian worship and Christian community are intended to manifest this intersection: giving voice to the needs of the gathered people, revealing the divine love that transcends all human boundaries.

Living in this tension is difficult to say the least. Artists — my beloved girls with guitars, the ones whose souls we felt we knew so intimately that we referred to them only by their first names, and others of every age — know this strange irony: the richer the detail of a particular story, the more clearly one sees its universality.

This is what disappoints me about Sarah’s new album, finally: the songs seem to mistake generalization for universality. This is what challenges me about my adult self, my current ministry: the particularities of my church community overlook the universal themes that resonated so deeply in those years of passionate identification with the Lilith Fair ladies. I worry that I am fighting much more basic battles for feminism, and that something critical is lost in the exchange. Which is better for the young women who follow me? Addressing questions of access to reproductive rights and protections from sexual assault, or having the same conversation over and over with that windbag who exists in every congregation, who wonders, not to be sexist, if the men in the congregation can really have their spiritual needs met by a woman pastor?

I didn’t see Lilith this year. But I’m glad she’s back. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed her until now.

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4 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    Love the details of this article! I remember those tapes made from CDs and I remember going to hear Ani Difranco at my University. Thanks for this piece.

  2. Lara
    Lara says:

    I’ve been re-listening to Sarah and Ani and the Girls a lot lately, in part for the same reasons you mention. But most of all, I think that as I listen, I’ve been searching for my roots (how far and deep DO they stretch?) and wrestling with the question(s) of “Who am I now?” and “Who has this ministry helped me/made me become?”.
    I’m certainly not the girl I was in 1997, and there are days that I miss her as much as I have missed the Lilith Fair.
    Thanks for this piece!

  3. ann
    ann says:

    along with the economy effecting people going, I wonder how much “i’ve heard before” factored in. to expand your analogy some here, what does it mean to speak from the pulpit year after year using primarily one, admittedly diverse and rich but nonetheless *one*, book–the Bible? “oh, i’ve heard that before; i’ve got it; don’t need to hear it again”? …
    thanks for the piece.

  4. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    I remember Dar Williams at my college! We always said we were the ones who got her started. (Because a couple hundred women at a tiny rural women’s college have so much power, right?)
    I know I’m not the same person now that I was then, and I think that’s a good thing for the most part. I think the original Lilith Fair existed because it needed to, and it gave society the gift we needed to receive.
    I’d probably go today, as a nostalgic throwback with my Wells sisters. I still listen to Dar Williams and I can still hear my friend Jenny belting out Sarah’s Angel.
    But I wouldn’t go because I need the message anymore. I’d go because those artists were an important stepping stone on my journey.
    And I’d probably also go to Lady Gaga, as well…
    And about now I’m realizing I need a new job to finance all these concerts I want to go to! 🙂
    PS- I should probably mention that I was hot stuff, indeed- I had a stereo with TWO tape players and a CD player, so you could record from tape, radio, OR CD. It even had a remote control. I was the dubbing queen for a while.


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