Renaissance Fair

In March, two of the biggest musical stars in the world, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé Knowles, released the much-anticipated music video for Gaga's song "Telephone." The video, which debuted on the E! Channel and online on a Thursday at 11:30 P.M., had 500,000 views in its first 12 hours. (It also pushed Lady Gaga to the fore of Internet video viewing -- "Telephone," coupled with her two previous hits, "Bad Romance" and "Poker Face," made her the first musical artist to reach 1 billion video views online.) The buzz around the video was a reminder of how much times have changed for women artists. The "Telephone" hype focused on the budget, the fashion, the cameos, and the sets. That the song and video featured two women artists was the least remarkable part.

Thirteen years ago, things were different. Few concert lineups featured two women back-to-back, and radio stations were reluctant to play two female-led songs in a row -- even as the Spice Girls' first album, Spice, went seven times platinum. So, in 1997, singer Sarah McLachlan launched Lilith Fair, a summer concert festival featuring dozens of female performers, most of whom fell into the "adult contemporary" genre. The headliners included Lisa Loeb, Jewel, Fiona Apple, and Tracy Chapman (who was one of very few women of color on any of the stages). In the popular media, Lilith Fair was mocked as "Breast Fest" and "Girlapalooza." Still, according to organizers, more than 1.5 million people attended the festival over the course of its three-year run.

In 1998 and 1999, the festival featured a slightly more diverse lineup both racially and musically. But as the decade came to a close, there was little room in the mainstream for the kind of music Lilith was promoting. The charts were populated by a rush of young, single-sex pop groups like *NSYNC and Destiny's Child -- spawned by the success of the Spice Girls -- and what McLachlan called "angry white male middle-class rock bands."

Today, pop groups have fallen out of favor (although the now-defunct Destiny's Child and *NSYNC spawned solo superstars Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake), and the angry white male middle-class rock bands aren't producing many top-10 hits. For the most part, the biggest hits in 2010 are in the pop and hip-hop genres, which influence each other so much as to be almost indistinguishable at times.

While hip-hop is dominated by men -- perhaps more so now than at any other time in its history -- women own pop. No wonder Lady Gaga, who has had five top-five hits in the past three years, proclaims, "I'm a free bitch, baby." Beyoncé's 2008 album I Am...Sasha Fierce became her third to debut at No. 1 in the U.S. and won five Grammys, including Song of the Year for "Single Ladies." And country singer Taylor Swift made a major crossover into pop after her 2008 album, Fearless, sat atop the Billboard 200 chart for 11 weeks, longer than any album released after 2000.

It might seem like an odd time to revive Lilith Fair -- which is exactly what McLachlan is doing this summer. When she announced the first set of artists for 2010, she said it was "wonderful to see established and new artists alike have the opportunity to play in front of much larger or more diverse audiences than usual."

But even the most ardent supporter of women in music could be forgiven for asking: In the era of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift, do we really need, or even want, another Lilith Fair?

during its original run, Lilith Fair's "overall image was still a bunch of broomstick-skirted college students who talked about their periods too much going to see a bunch of white ladies you could hear in your dentist's office," wrote Salon's Kate Harding last October. "Which might, in fact, be why it only existed for three years." Indeed, Lilith Fair wasn't particularly diverse, racially or sonically. It picked up a couple of popular hip-hop and R&B artists in 1998 and 1999, including Erykah Badu, Mya, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott, but it never shook its reputation as an overwhelmingly white, acoustic-guitar strum-fest.

This year, it seems that McLachlan and festival co-founder Terry McBride are trying to rectify that. The 2010 lineup brings back Badu and includes R&B hit-makers Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige. Jenni Rivera, a Mexican American banda/corrido star will also headline. There are more country acts, like Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert, and a few acts that defy description, like the sing-song pseudo rapper Ke$ha and alternative soul singer Janelle Monae. There are even a couple of woman-fronted mixed-sex pop and punk bands like Gossip and Metric.

At the time of Lilith's original run, female musicians seemed to have two options: strumming a guitar while crooning, or writhing on stage in a provocative outfit. Many of the artists on the 2010 Lilith Fair bill have built fan bases by doing neither -- or by something in between. The new lineup reflects how dramatically the landscape has changed for women in music. Lady Gaga, who first tried to make a career in the mid-aughts as a singer-songwriter, may have been the kind of act that Lilith would have fostered in the 1990s. But when she was unable to make a breakthrough, she morphed into the haute couture?wearing, breakbeat-rocking, vulnerable, vengeful, and murderous persona we see in her videos. And her decision to contort herself into a unique character has certainly added more interest to the pop landscape.

For the women who won't or can't do what Gaga has, Lilith will provide a one-of-a-kind opportunity. Admittedly, today very few artists from the original festival's second- and third-level stages are household names, but perhaps part of that is due to a glut of musically similar acts. By upping the diversity in the tour and including a wider variety of genres, Lilith could very well pull in a much broader audience and spawn new fans of underexposed female acts.

The festival will also make it possible for women to be heard on their own terms -- at least as much as it is possible for a musical artist to do anything on her own terms. And this fact is what makes the woman-led concert space so deeply necessary. Despite the fact that Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift and Rihanna are all making waves in pop, they're mostly still singing about men, singing to men, or titillating men. A place where women sing for themselves and to other women is a feminist act that far outweighs a few retrograde (but admittedly catchy) lyrics demanding that a man "put a ring on it."

And the festival's organizers are putting money where their mouths are. According to the Lilith Fair Web site, the 1990s run raised more than $10 million for local and national charities through ticket sales. The festival will continue that practice this year, with a dollar from every ticket sold going to a local charity program that benefits women. Beginning in March, fans were encouraged to use Facebook to vote for a charity from a select list of nonprofits in their city or to enter their own in a "Choose Your Charity" campaign. The winning nonprofit would receive funds from ticket sales in their city. To be eligible for funds, a nonprofit must be "a women's-focused initiative [sic]." In the early voting, several crisis pregnancy centers made it onto the ballots, as technically, they are "woman focused." CPCs are "resource centers" for pregnant women where anti-choice groups work to persuade them to give birth. A swift outcry from a group of Lilith fans on Facebook led McBride to drop several CPCs from the ballot and to "review" the policy for selecting charities. McBride wrote to the owners of the Facebook group, "We said we wanted the community to have a voice, and we meant it."

That community is women.

***

The original run of Lilith Fair may have brought in more than 1 million attendees and elevated the profile of genre performers like McLachlan, but it also spawned a decade's worth of jokes about broomstick skirts. It's possible that Lilith inadvertently led to the ghettoization of female singer-songwriters, celebrating and promoting them at the exact moment when record labels realized that acoustic "chick rock," while profitable, was not as profitable as hypersexual "girl power" pop. Many of the original headliners have since faded into obscurity or have very small, niche audiences -- after all, who's heard from Meredith Brooks or Paula Cole lately? The few who are still stars today, like Badu, were famous before the festival.

It's too soon to tell what effect Lilith Fair 2010 will have, as the tour doesn't begin until late June. But given ample time to analyze the original run, it's clear that McLachlan, McBride, and the other organizers have put some thought into what worked the first time around -- and what's still missing in music. Lilith Fair was a space for women to collaborate, not compete for male attention, and it was at its best when it didn't rely on a single, bland genre but rather pulled in artists from various musical backgrounds.

This is why Lilith Fair is still relevant. Despite the fact that a few highly packaged women dominate the charts and sell out stadiums, there are dozens of genres and hundreds of female artists who will never make a single Billboard chart, despite being loved by a devoted, if small, group of fans. There are women out there who could use this festival as a boost to build a fan base. Put simply, there's more to music than pop.

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