For the second annual Lilith Fair, ringmaster Sarah adds a new twist to the usual fair
ONCE UPON A MORE MILITANT TIME, WHEN THEY HELD THE ODD “women’s music” festival, they spelled womyn with a y. No such matriarchal mandate, though for Lilith Fair, which dares present the peculiarity of an all-female lineup and then ask, Why ask why? Festival founder Sarah McLachlan, 30, is cheerfully short on answers, even on the eve of Lilith’s second coming. The annual outing wasn’t conceived, she says, to prove a point about the commercial firepower of chick singers (though last summer’s $16.5 million gross certainly hammered that home). No sociopolitical banners, either. Getting pop’s most talented frontwomen together — and leaving the men to slave labor — just sounded like… “fun”.
Hell, the Spice Girls have more of an agenda than that. Fancy- and agitprop-free or not, Lilith was at the crux of a cultural revolution last year, giving girl power a grown-up face and the lie to the idea that the public prefers its female singers in novel isolation, not en masse. It didn’t hurt that the vast majority of young white “adult alternative” artists worth giving a hoot about happen these days to be missing a crucial Y chromosome. But if Lilith was almost as definable by genre as gender in ’97, this time McLachlan is mixing it up, adding more hip-hop and alt-rock to the 57-date fest’s ever-morphing lineup and putting newcomers like Erykah Badu, Luscious Jackson, and Lauryn Hill alongside such holdovers as Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and Lisa Loeb.
Homogeneity was hardly on the menu when we solicited a few key divas for an EW roundtable, either. On her new album, Ophelia, and especially the first single, “Kind and Generous”, Natalie Merchant, 34, manages to make every virtue Bill Bennett ever extolled sexy, even a little subversive. Meanwhile, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, reigning queen of hip-hop, made bumpin’ a sport for both sexes on last year’s Supa Dupa Fly. Paula Cole, 30, got smirky for one hit (“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”) but otherwise fervently mines the ideological passion pit. The far droller Liz Phair, 31, was frank about sex and boredom back when Elizabeth Wurtzel was a mere gleam in her publisher’s eye — though, after a long layoff that found her becoming a mother, Phair’s August release, whitechocolatespaceegg, may be shocking for not being so shocking.
So join the girls of summer for as they sit down for a chat with senior writer Chris Willman in advance of the tour’s June 19 kickoff in Portland, Ore., and learn why Sarah has her hand down her Levi’s, which participant is in gravest danger of having nude etchings pop up on the Net, and why Bob Dylan might not be welcome even if he were just like a woman.
EW: There’s no truth to the rumor Ginger Spice quit the band so she could come join up with Lilith Fair, is there?
ALL: [Stunned silence]
McLACHLAN: Uh… It’s the first I’ve heard!
MERCHANT: I had a dream about the Spice Girls last night, and I’ve never even seen or heard them.
McLACHLAN: How have you managed that?
MERCHANT: I live under a rock,
PHAIR: That’s brilliant. Can I interpret?
PHAIR: Jesus is holding the heads of two martyrs — a very Judeo-Christian, patriarchal thing — and here comes the Spice Girls, blowing the image of this somber scene, defying convention and forgetting about the rules of this solemn place —
McLACHLAN: Destroying the facade.
PHAIR: –and throw that against this Lilith/gender thing.
MERCHANT: A couple of ’em still had just their wet panties on. “I’m not naked yet!”
COLE: Well, Ginger Spice is naked in Playboy and Penthouse.
MERCHANT: I used to model for a college
COLE: Have you ever been in a photoshoot where the photographer eggs you on to show your breasts?
PHAIR: Totally. Horrifying. When I was really young and didn’t know better… And what’s worse is that I had the worst makeup of any photoshoot I’ve ever had in my entire life, and suspenders over my nipples, and that was it. And there were 20 people sitting around having drinks watching.
McLACHLAN: Or you’re lying on the floor and your boob pops out of your dress, and no one wants to tell you.
COLE: I did a shoot for US magazine, and I show up and there’s a little pile of rags that I was supposed to wear. It was one of the first photo shoots I did for This Fire, my second album. I went along with it, but I was so mortified… I’m lying on a table filled with cheese and fruit, like “You can eat me, too.”
McLACHLAN: I remember that shoot. You looked beautiful.
COLE: But if you look in my eyes, you can tell I’m not there. And yeah, he asked me to expose my breast, so I did, and I now want to kill him… If you ever, ever want to say no, say no!
EW: And yet there are two women here — Paula and Liz — who’ve posed partially or wholly nude for album covers. That wasn’t anyone else’s idea but your own, right?
COLE: I didn’t even want to be on my first record cover. I was in a fragile time in my life. I cut my hair really short; I was androgynous; I didn’t want to be sexualized — I wanted it to be about the music. And I had a very aristocratic [label head] who wouldn’t let me not be on the cover. He’d always pick a sexy picture, and I was choosing artistic pictures. That album was a lot of pain. The second album was about me standing on my own two feet, producing it myself, and coming to a place in life of letting my hair grow, realizing “Fuck you, I feel beautiful inside! I know there’s always gonna be some construction worker checking out my ass and making lewd comments, but it doesn’t have to affect me anymore. I can choose to be the beautiful woman that I am.” For so long I didn’t believe that and I felt victimized by the psychic bombardment of men. I wasn’t gonna be that victim anymore, I was gonna be proud. So that album cover is symbolic of that discovery. But I’ll never pose nude again, ever, if it’s somebody else’s idea.
PHAIR: Never say never.
COLE: It’s harder, I think, for women who get famous when they’re young. I know when I was 20, I could have been pushed to do a lot that I didn’t want to do. I’m glad I had my success later.
PHAIR: Missy, how old are you?
ELLIOTT: I won’t tell! [Laughter]
PHAIR: But you’re younger than us!
ELLIOTT: Just… middle 20s. But I have no problems, because I’m under my own label, and I call my own shots. So anything I don’t want to do, I don’t have to.
COLE: I look forward to getting older. I look forward to being comfortable with my age. I find it disturbing that so many notable women get plastic surgery… I think Bonnie Raitt’s a perfect example of someone who’s comfortable and looks beautiful with the wrinkles that show how she has lived.
McLACHLAN: There’s so much bombardment of other people’s perceptions of you in the job that we have. We’re constantly being told what other people think we are, and that’s why it is so important to know yourself.
PHAIR: They let you into the pop culture and say, “Okay, you are this.” I was the good girl/bad girl — and if I wasn’t gonna keep filling that slot, there was no room for me. It’s like, Are you gonna step up to the plate and be that again?
MERCHANT: People respond to something honest. That’s what artists have offered to other generations. And a lot of people may degrade what we do, and say, “You’re just a pop artist.” But what other kind of art are a lot of 14-year-old girls being exposed to? Are the reading classic poetry? Are they going to see the classic plays? No, they’re listening to our records. And hopefully, they’ll grow and move into other phases — I’m not claiming that I’m part of the same highbrow culture — but I like to think that there’s something in what I’m doing that describes my experience in this place that touches a human part of someone else.
EW: Lilith certainly tapped into something last year — now it’s hail the conquering heroine and all that.
McLACHLAN: I’m so happy that this year — partially because of that success — we’re allowed to make a more diverse bill. We asked so many people last year who said no, who didn’t know what Lilith was all about, and were hesitant. And honestly, I can’t blame them. It would be like if Lollapalooza asked me last year, and I looked at the bill and went, “There’s no fuckin’ way I’m going out with Metallica! I’ll get my ass kicked!” I’m just glad it’s been able to expand and go where I always wanted it to, bridging different worlds of music. [To Elliott] That’s why I’m so excited you’re doing this. It’s opening up my mind to music that I hadn’t been really aware of as well. It’s so funny, because [in person] Missy is adorable — this quiet little thing — and then you get her on stage, and she blew the shit out of me last year at a gig we did in Miami. I almost had no idea a live show could be that explosive.
ELLIOTT: Now I’m doing songs with Paula and writing songs for Spice Girls, so I feel like I’m on the other side. And to me that’s good, because one thing about me is, I would never want to just be in the hip-hop world. I want to be universal. I knew that from the time I started, and I believe that’s why I’m right here.
EW: Sarah, you were on the defensive a lot last year about the bill’s lack of racial and musical diversity.
McLACHLAN: Yeah, and I betcha anything people are gonna say the same thing this year, as far as hard rock. I’m trying to think of women in hard-rock bands that are still together…
EW: Wasn’t that part of the concept to disprove that women could only be commercially successful sharing bills with men?
McLACHLAN: It certainly became that for a lot of people, but that wasn’t the reason for doing it. It wasn’t any social commentary thing. It was that I thought it’d be fun. That’s it! Nobody wants to hear that! They want me to be this big political/social innovator. I kind of became that by error.
EW: But you’re expected to be a standard-bearer. There was a New York Times review of Surfacing that seemed to have a beef with “Sweet Surrender”, suggesting it was too acquiescent for someone who’s supposed to be a feminist role model.
McLACHLAN: I missed that one… But I’ve fought an image long and hard of me being the ethereal soul who rides off in the sunset on a white horse. [To Phair] It’s like you and your bad-girl thing — I got typecast as the demure waif. Which I guess the music helped [perpetuate].
EW: But it does seem, Sarah, like you’ve gone to a different extreme, at least with that sexy Levi’s-Lilith advertorial you did for the most recent issue of Vogue.
McLACHLAN: You’re basically at the mercy of the stylist and photographer. I showed up and they started piling makeup on me. We had a bit of a conflict, with me saying “Well, this is kind of… harsh!” [Laughs] And then I said, “Okay, I want to approve all these shots.” And I had to fight and fight…. For the billboard in Times Square, I got to chose [a shot]. But the one in Vogue was sort of set in stone. I’ve got my hand down my pants because the jeans were too damn tight, and when I was scrunched over — you know, you need to sort of fix yourself — there they were taking the picture…. I remember that exact moment, too, going “Oh-kay, I bet this is the fucking shot they’re gonna choose!” And of course it was. My mother is horrified: “You look like a heroin addict! You look like Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt!” Thanks, Mom!
EW: Paula, with “Cowboys”, some had you figured for a reactionary, while others got the irony but then wrote you off as another ardent feminist. How did you finally feel about how people related to it?
COLE: Well, I just heard that at the Miss Nude Universe pageant the winner stripped to “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” And then when I went to the Persian Gulf last Christmas and played for the troops on the USS George Washington, the largest man-made warship in history, they gave me a plaque that said “Where all the cowboys are”. Spin called me the Nancy Reagan of Lilith Fair.
COLE: This is all because of “Cowboys”. And The New York Times said I was to the right of “Stand By Your Man”. And I just stand back on the hill and watch, and it’s fun. I like that my song is enjoyed by all these different kinds of people. Of course… I was being funny; it was my little attempt at sarcasm. Because normally I’m confessional and honest… There are twists of melancholy threaded through the song, so I suppose it’s a little confusing.
EW: Natalie, I don’t know if if you’d call it maternal or sisterly, but there’s an awareness of other people’s pain in some of your songs that’s almost entirely absent otherwise in popular music. Rock is largely about suffering, but generally on the level of “My baby left me” or “Daddy took the T-Bird away”, whereas you envelop a wider universe where there’s even an awareness of children or old people.
MERCHANT: I’ve always tried to identify with people that are victimized because to me it mirrors a larger struggle for power. That’s the only way you have a victim, if someone has more power. So I have written songs about women who are indigent or elderly people who can’t read… And I got a lot of flak for writing those types of songs.
EW: All of you have your variations on the woman-to-woman “advice song”. Sarah has “Good Enough”. And Natalie has “Life Is Sweet”…
MERCHANT: I was thinking when I sang that of those little girls you see at Kmart, where the mother yanks them up by one arm and says, “I’m gonna knock you around if you touch that toy one more time!” I just want to go up to those girls and say, “You’re their little prisoner now, but someday you’re gonna grow up and make your own decisions about the way you look at the world, and they won’t be there to do this to you anymore.” It just breaks my heart to see that go on.
COLE: We can spout a lot of words, but I think really it’s our actions that determine the meaning of our lives…
MERCHANT: There’s that whole argument: Do you have to be a good person to be a good artist? Because I’m always saying “Bob Dylan is an asshole in Don’t Look Back. The way he treats people is reprehensible.” Then you always hear people: “Oh, he was so cool in Don’t Look Back!” And I’m like, “He wrote great songs, but he was mean!” Picasso…
MERCHANT: And a misogynist, from what we read.
PHAIR: Frank Lloyd Wright never paid his bills.
MERCHANT: It just seems like as an artist, you can excuse a lot of things because you created something that was meaningful to the culture. And my argument has always been no, you have to live a good life, be a good person… Jackson Pollock could go to parties and piss in people’s plants — but he’s still Jackson Pollock! [Laughs] If he pissed in my plants, I’d say, “Excuse me, Jackson, find the door!”
COLE: I don’t respect artists simply for their talent. My heroes are Gandhi, Malcolm X, people who stood for something. Not Picasso. Definitely not Dylan — as much as I like his songs.
MERCHANT: That’s an interesting thing, separating what musicians do from who musicians are. I use first-person perspective constantly as a literary device. These songs are not all about me, me, me. I wrote this song “Wonder”: “Doctors have come from distant cities to see me…” Right from the beginning, I would think you’d have to be an idiot to think that this song was about me. But then [critics] would write, “She must have the biggest ego on the planet…”
PHAIR: Really? I knew better, but I didn’t even stop myself. I went right along with it. I want to think it’s you! [Laughter]
MERCHANT: I shouldn’t have spoiled it for you!
PHAIR: Well, I knew it wasn’t you. But I mean, don’t you ever find yourself falling into the same traps?
MERCHANT: Well, with Joni Mitchell, I want to think that she led the most exciting life imaginable, that every one of those songs is about her. But they can’t be. Some have to be about people she read about in the paper or a conversation she overheard on the plane…
PHAIR: I’m a man twice on [my new] album.
McLACHLAN: Yeah, I was one last time.
EW: The variety of new perspectives women bring to rock seems part of what Lilith is implicitly celebrating, much as there’s an understandable reluctance to risk gender stereotyping by trying to qualify what a female viewpoint might entail.
MERCHANT: I don’t put a gender tag on empathy. I’ve seen films and read books by mean that I would have sworn were written or filmed by women. I think there’s elements of the masculine and feminine in all of us. But I do acknowledge those qualities exist. We’re built for different purposes. I think there are things that are intrinsically female. I don’t know what those things are, but they must come out of the major difference between us, which is that our whole life’s purpose biologically is to bear a child in our bodies, just like men’s whole biological purpose is to plant. And there’s thousands of years of mythology and literature based around that fact, cultures that have developed over the centuries to balance and control that relationship that men and women have with each other.
EW: Liz, where do you come down on the myth or reality of the feminine perspective? Because it sounds…
PHAIR: Don’t jump, because really, I would prefer that individuality would transcend gender. But I’ve had a baby, and I really believe that the male and female are different. My son was a son so clearly, no matter what I did. I was a big feminist in my college days, and I used to say it was nurture. But I really think a lot of it’s nature, too. And so I think my songs couldn’t have been written by a man, because they couldn’t have had my experiences. But at the same time, I don’t think they’re important because they’re female songs. I think first and foremost, a songwriter should be explaining an individual experience before explaining it from a male experience. But you can’t say that a black songwriter and a white songwriter wouldn’t have unique perspectives. And it’s not the same for women as men. But I empathize with, and feel like, a man sometimes. I feel like a dog sometimes. Or a giraffe.
EW: Missy, with your battle-of-the-sexes tracks, do you sense women and men relating on different levels?
ELLIOT: Basically, I write for the females, because we go through the most stuff. But even though I’m speaking from a woman’s point of view, guys can relate, because they know the dirt that they do. I always write realist. In the hip-hop world, we don’t get this deep! We’re just straightforward: “Okay, he was playin’ on me, and I’m coming to your house, we’re gonna fight!” [Laughter]
EW: Missy might be an unexpected presence here, but so, Liz, are you. You might’ve been predicted to side more with some of the rock women who’ve made statements against Lilith, like Courtney Love, Tori Amos, and Ani DiFranco, who feel it perpetuates a Women in Rock separatist media mythos.
PHAIR: If they choose not to be a part of it, that’s absolutely fine. But to me, it’s like a blessed event. I hate my job, because it’s always surrounding me with men, and I never feel like I have peers. I’m so excited to be around other women who do what I do — I don’t even care what it stands for. Can you, as a man, imagine working in an entirely female workplace, from the boss down? You’d be like, “Periods — whatever!” I get junior high feelings coming on. And I know that cattiness and other stuff goes with that, but it’s been since I got out of college that I felt even an inkling of this. I went
EW: So if a Courtney or an Ani says this is all a terrible idea…
MERCHANT: I think there are much more important things to protest than a group of women singing on a certain day together. Don’t waste your breath. Talk about Pakistan blowing up nuclear bombs underground. Talk about the millions of children in this country who are not immunized against diseases that people have suffered with for countless generations. Talk about all the women who’ve been kicked off welfare and can’t feed their children, working at places like McDonald’s, and as far as [the government] is concerned, they’re self-sufficient. Talk about the black and Hispanic people sitting in prison because they didn’t have enough money to get a lawyer to get them out, for simple things like drug possession.
EW: No gender premium on empathy, my eye.
MERCHANT: There’s just so much going on in the world that’s worth protesting without saying anything negative about a group of women that are just going to play some music.
By Chris Willman
Entertainment Weekly, June 19, 1998