The 90s in music was an interesting and explosive time for female artists. Pop and R&B singers of the lady variety dominated the Billboard charts almost every year. Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan bulldozed her way onto the scene with the success of her fourth studio album, Surfacing. Using that success, she spearheaded the traveling music festival Lilith Fair.
Lilith Fair ran for three consecutive years, touring the
U.S. and Canada. It was one of the most successful traveling music festivals in history and raised over $10,000,000 for various women’s charities during its existence. The fest highlighted female performers and bands that featured a female frontperson. The first glimmer of Lilith Fair was actually the year prior to its launch (1996), when McLachlan and fellow singer/songwriter Paula Cole shared a headlining bill in Halifax, Nova Scotia (McLachlan’s hometown). This particular show, though part of a larger tour with the two singers, marked the first appearance of the Lilith Fair title.
Lilith was openly mocked, garnering names such as "Breast Fest" and "Girlapalooza." Several tour stops were protested by extremist anti-gay religious groups, as the festival had become synonymous with lesbian pride, despite the fact that it was not structurally affiliated with any sort of LGBT group. Even with these struggles, Lilith Fair still rose to meet its challenges and certainly proved critics wrong: in its inaugural year, it was the highest grossing touring festival in North America.
Lilith Fair shows included three stages: the Main Stage, the Second Stage, and the Village Stage. In 1997, McLachlan and Suzanne Vega headlined each stop of the tour on the Main Stage. In various cities, they were joined by other successful female musicians of the time such as Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, Fiona Apple, Emmylou Harris, the Indigo Girls and India.Arie.
The Second Stage featured other successful artists who were less well-known than their Main Stage counterparts. In ’97, some notable artists were Juliana Hatfield, Dar Wiliams, Morcheeba, and K’s Choice. The Village Stage was reserved for up-and-coming talents and artists local to the communities of the tour stops. Some of the better known ’97 Village Stage artists were Dido, Jill Sobule, and Beth Orton. Confusingly, the legendary Pat Benatar also made a few appearances on the Village Stage during Lilith Fair’s first run.
In ’98, Lilith’s second go-around featured a much longer list of musicians and bands, but few of them did more than a couple of the tour dates each. McLachlan was the only artist to perform at every tour stop that year. Unlike 1997’s headliner/main stage list, Lilith Fair ’98 broadened its genre spectrum to include a number of rap and R&B artists (specifically Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliot), making the tour considerably less whitewashed than its first incarnation, something for which it received marked criticism.
The Second and Village Stages again featured lesser-known artists, and also a larger collection of them. Notable additions to the lineup of 1998’s smaller stages were Lucinda Williams, Martina McBride, Letters to Cleo, Neko Case, and Sixpence None the Richer, among others.
In the third and final year of the original Lilith Fair tour (1999), Sarah Mclachlan was again the only artist to play at each festival date. The Main Stage’s artist list shrunk considerably, but more big (or soon-to-be-big) names graced the secondary stages than in the years prior. Cibo Matto, Aimee Mann, Bijou Phillips, Christina Aguilera, Nelly Furtado, Nina Gordon, and Tegan and Sara all had performances on either the Second Stage or the Village Stage.
Lilith Fair, for all the mockery and criticism it incurred, was arguably the biggest positive influence for women in music during its original three-year run. In an industry that focused on limiting women for fear that the music-consuming public wouldn’t accept them, Lilith and McLachlan made great strides in proving that not only are music lovers willing to support female musicians, but that there is a lot of money to be made in doing so.
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