Lilith Fair Started Because Sarah McLachlan Had Writer's Block

Image via AP.
Image via AP.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Lilith Fair, Glamour Magazine interviewed Sarah McLachlan and the other women (and men) who got the festival on its feet for an oral history, full of background tidbits, reflections on how far things have come, and how far there is to go when it comes to women’s representation in music.

The birth of Lilith Fair actually preceded 1997, when McLachlan’s manager, Terry McBride, pushed her to do a few weeks of summer shows to help with her writer’s block. She agreed on the condition that the lineup be all female artists. McLachlan had such a good time, she decided to try to do a full festival, but found it difficult to convince promoters that having so many women on the ticket would be good for business. In response, McLachlan told them, “Well, we’ve done it! So you can either support us or get left behind.”

Despite the naysayers, the first Lilith Fair attracted a huge numbers of attendees, but it was met with criticism for its lack of racial diversity, and for that matter, auditory diversity:

McLACHLAN: I grappled with the fact we were being so successful [while] people were saying negative things or trying to pull us down. We got a lot of flak for being a white-chick folk fest. [Only two of the headlining acts were women of color: Tracy Chapman and India Arie.]

McBRIDE: We knew the media would come at us hard for that. And we tried, but I think you should question the artists who said no.

McLACHLAN: That was not for lack of trying. We asked everybody.

EDWARDS: I didn’t pick up on [the lack of diversity]. I’m a black woman fostered by white parents. I live in Surrey, [England,] and there’s not many black people. I don’t feel like a “black artist.” I’m a singer-songwriter that happens to be black.

POWERS: In truth, Lilith wasn’t a genre-­spanning women’s music festival. It was a singer-songwriter festival focused on women. The question is, Why is the category of ­singer-songwriter cast as white?


Music journalist Lorraine Ali remembers her impression of Lilith Fair was initially one of skepticism, saying that “it was taking the most passive thing in popular music that women were doing and putting it forth as the united front of women in music, and it wasn’t united at all.”

Ali shared an anecdote about jazz musician Cassandra Wilson being upset about being put on the second stage.

“She was unhappy about it, and she was justified,” explained Ali. “Most of that bus ride was spent talking about how she got f-cked over. The more I think about it, the Cassandra Wilson thing probably was cut along color lines too.”

The success of 1997's tour meant that more artists wanted to perform the following year, and the bill included Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, and Erykah Badu. McLachlan, however, still seems frustrated with criticisms of the festival’s diversity.

I don’t think Perry Farrell was taken to task for those things [when he put together Lollapalooza]. We were doing something that really hadn’t been done before, so anytime there’s anything new happening, there is the desire to tear it down or find holes. Especially if you’re trying to do something good. It pisses people off.


McBride says the festival ended because ticket sales were down, though this was a problem across the board as prices went up. The demographic for Lilith Fair had also grown up, according to McLachlan, who thought the women who used to attend now “had mortgages and three kids and weren’t going to stand in a hot field for $150 all day.”

Sara Quin, who appeared at the festival with her sister as part of pop duo Tegan and Sara, talked about the way that appearance felt like a huge deal for them, though their show was rained out. But, she says, she doesn’t know that the festival created enough change in the male-dominated music industry.


“Pitchfork did a survey of 23 of the top festivals this year, and 74 percent of the bills are men,” said Quin.

You can and should read the whole story here.

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin

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Mama ain't happy

Ahhhh I was a mopey ~deep~ 15 year old white girl stranded in rural central California in 1997, and the great disappointment of my life was that I could never make it to Lilith Fair. It totally blew my mind—women who *think* and *feel* and make music and all hang out together. I was a baby feminist/ wannabe poet in what felt like a cultural wasteland, and I IDOLIZED all the Lilith Fair ladies, especially Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is a mopey intellectual white girl who feels too much masterpiece, and I will stare passive-aggressively at anyone who denies it!)

Sarah. Girl. Yes, your fans are all grown up now with mortgages and children, but we also have this little thing called disposable income. I would be *happy* to pay $150 to stand in a field for Lilith Fair 2.0. I think we need it now more in 2017 than we ever did in 1997. Just...this time do a better job including Women of Color, okay?