Lilith Fair Signals a New Era in Female Music
A woman with a name that belies her mood comes home to her favorite room -- the kitchen -- and plans a few small repairs in her life. Standing outside her house, sweater and kids in hand, she strikes a match, counting the years she always knew what she should do. Go on and do it. A woman comes out of the night, using the energy she finds there and bears a cross from a faith that died before Jesus came. A woman with a girl's voice sweetly beckons her beloved back to bed, vowing that for him she'd be a poor man's wife. And then she gives him some more. Another woman claims her right to be a mother, a child, a lover, a bitch, a tease, a goddess on her knees, a sinner and a saint. She does not feel ashamed. Lilith, shrouded in myth and the silence of her long exile, would be pleased.A troupe of musicians and songwriters gentler and earthier than their lollapaloozing brethren have taken the country by storm this summer. The tour marks the first time a venue completely comprised of women singer songwriters has proven to be such an artistic and financial success. Perceptions and values commonly attributed to women are these days the stuff of radio hits, healthy record sales and sell-out concerts. It was inevitable the public would request back-to-back songs from artists who only a few years ago were considered by the music industry to be token female balladeers and folk singers."The whole 'women in music' thing is popular now, and it seems to be primarily a media thing," said Emily Saliers, half of the Indigo Girls, in a recent interview with City Edition. "Jewel is on the cover of Time magazine. It will probably wane, but it's a media angle right now." Women in music, particularly rock, have been slowly getting stronger in a business and art traditionally dominated by men, and the record companies have taken notice, Saliers said."The record companies are starting to see how popular it is when they see Jewel go double platinum," she said of her 23-year-old tourmate's first album, Pieces of You (Atlantic), which has sold more than 5 million copies. People now hunger for stories and sentiments far different from the angsty grunge tomes of the past half decade, she added. "There's a real honesty in Jewel's music and her lyrics," Saliers said. "And there is in what we do and what others do. It's refreshing to have that. Women singing about their happiness and passion and what's important to them, not just about female sexuality. There no pressure right now to do that." Saliers and her singing partner Amy Ray joined Lilith July 30 for a three-week tour. After the Milwaukee concert comes one in Shakopee, MN., the Indigo Girls' final stop with Lilith. They'll continue their own tour for their new album, Shaming of the Sun (Epic), in September. The Lilith concerts, selling out or close to it, present an atmosphere different from the ones the Indigos usually prefer, Saliers said. "You extend yourself more to be able to reach all those people a gazillion feet away sitting on the grass (in large venues)," she said. "You don't have to do that in a theater where the audience is closer and you can actually see people's faces. Then on the other hand, there's the sheer number of people, and the sound, and everybody clapping and performing outside makes it really nice. It's a festival."By the time Lilith Fair wraps up this month, artists will have performed 37 concerts in 35 cities. Lilith's founder, Sarah McLachlan, will have performed in all of them, a pleasure, she told City Edition. "It's one of the easiest I've ever done," she said of the round of 50-minute performances and additional, impromptu sets she performs on main and side stages during the tour. "That's compared to two and a half hours for my usual concerts. That's great. I was on tour for two and a half years doing longer concerts, so this is wonderful."It's also an ideal way to promote her new album, Surfacing (Arista), which includes the bewitching "Building a Mystery." Her music and lyrics, known by her fans for their languid, often mystic effects, and lush and sensuous images, have helped define the so-called coffee-house folk-pop music making its way onto radio play lists and Top 10 charts.Listeners ardently welcome the poetic, often comforting, lyrics and melodies, she said. "(People) just want something different. I might be painting myself into a corner here, and I don't mean to generalize and marginalize certain music, but we've been hearing for a while the angry, existential music. Lilith is coming from a very different place," McLachlan said. She organized the first Lilith festival, a small affair that played Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, last summer with a handful of artists. As of August 11, the 1997 Lilith Fair was the fourth biggest moneymak ing tour of the year, grossing $478,000 in ticket sales per concert, according to Pollstar magazine, a California-based publication that tracks concert sales.Lilith is outselling the aging and cranky Lollapalooza tour, ranked 12th so far this year with $277,500 in gross ticket sales per show, according to Pollstar.U2 is the most lucrative tour of 1997, grossing a stunning $2.45 million in ticket sales per concert. Jimmy Buffett's travelling beach party ranks second so far, with $977,300 in ticket sales, and metalheads have made Ozzfest '97 number three so far, raking in more than $600,000 in tickets sales per show. Lilith's success doesn't surprise McLachlan. "I'd be really disappointed if it wasn't successful," she said. The kind of music made famous and appealing by artists such as McLachlan, Jewel and the Indigo Girls often rises above critics' labels that dismiss it as the latest fad."The word 'fad' is a subjective thing. I don't think women in music is a fad at all," McLachlan said. "But some music stays and some changes. This is a reaction (to aggressive grunge). A gentler music follows." And there's more of it on the radio these days, said Bob Reitman, a mainstay DJ on Milwaukee radio since 1967."I think the most significant stuff right now is being done by women," Reitman said.This generation of singer songwriters is not a flash in the pan, he adeed. "There have always been women in music. You had Annie Lennox in the '80s. Patti Smith was really important," Reitman said. "I think right now the doors are open. I think (these new artists) fill a void. There was a void of good music. "When someone comes along and they're pure, they shine. They shine, no matter what. And they last." They last despite some station managers' and music industry promoters' lack of vision."As a matter of fact, I was told at one time not to play songs by women back to back," Reitman said. "The station manager said the audience wouldn't take that. But that was a long time ago, back in the late '60s."Shawn Colvin can talk about the long, difficult road to radio play for the world of female folk singers. Her fourth record, A Few Small Repairs, is riding high on its first single, "Sunny Came Home." It took a while for those outside her core of loyal fans to discover her via their local Top 40 radio stations. "I have received recognition already," she said. "I have a core base of fans, and they've always stood by me and that's enabled me to have a career. It's the right time now. It was just a matter of time for women to gain more popularity. People like me were influenced by wonderful pioneers like Joni Mitchell." The new album was designed to be a breakthrough. "I've been making records since 1989. I'm pretty proud of this record," Colvin said. "I think it's the best one I've ever done. Am I surprised? No. We wanted to keep an eye on the commercial appeal of this one. I'm the first to say that we tried to write songs that would make it on the radio." A ballad from her 1992 album Fat City never made it onto the radio stations that could break her career open."There is a song on Fat City called "I Don't Know Why" that we tried to get played on radio, but the stations said they already had too many ballads by women," Colvin said.McLachlan tackled a similar attitude recently. "Oh, yes. That was happening three years ago," she said."I wanted Paula Cole to open for me (on tour) and the promoters said, 'Well, you can't put two women on a bill.' They didn't have a good reason. So I did it anyway and the tour sold out. So this (Lilith Fair) is definitely a poke to the industry, that a lineup comprised almost entirely of women can be so successful." The industry goes where the money is, and right now, the money, according to market research, is in the feminine viewpoint and music that speaks to women, said Chris Kerr, program director of WXPT-FM, "The Point," at 106.9 on the dial in Milwaukee.The station started up this spring with a format mix of retro-alternative music from the 1980s and early 1990s, and the popular, so-called "coffeehouse folk" often dominated by female artists singing from a feminist viewpoint. Male-led groups such as REM, Counting Crows and The Wallflowers, with a poetic, intellectual and emotional point to their music, are also in high rotation at the station. That's on purpose, said Kerr."When Saga Communications Inc., our broadcast owner, commissioned a research project, they determined there was a very viable position for a radio station that would target females ages 18 to 49 in Milwaukee," said Kerr. "I haven't heard the sheer number of quality songs and such a huge selection of albums from females in at least a decade. Not since the early '80s when you had a lot of females in music."The market is there because the people who were bopping along to Cyndi Lauper's ditties in the early '80s are grown up and drawn to music that speaks to them now, Kerr said. That music also speaks to their elders. "I think that female artists are the ones who have best identified that the world we live in is much more stressful, more dramatic, and a more wonderful place than people are sometimes really ready to admit," he said. "And part of the intrigue is that these women are singing about real people and real feelings. It's a lot different from the high school mentality of the 1980s with groups such as the Go Go's singing about vacations, and Cyndi Lauper singing about how girls just wanna have fun. These artists today present a more realistic picture. I think it's refreshing to the consumer that they have a balance now, not just the dance tunes." It could end, just as its predecessor -- grunge -- appears to be burning itself out, Kerr said."That's not to say this trend is going to last. This might burn out just like grunge did, you know, all that angst eventually brought you down. The next trend might be dance. Could be country again."The feminine viewpoint is coming around, but this time at a higher level, according to Seattle native Meredith Brooks, whose hit "Bitch" is one of the hottest songs on alternative stations around the country, including WXPT. "Everything is cyclical," said Brooks, who will perform Tuesday at Lilith. "Just as my lyrics are about hope, there were a lot of songs recently without hope. It's a spiral. Here's the difference. This time, it's another level of consciousness and intensity. The circle is coming around again, but this time it's spiraled up to another level. That's where this music is now." Brooks, whose first solo album, Blurring the Edges (Capitol), has drawn her out of regional obscurity in the Northwest and a quiet career in music almost a decade old (she was in a band called The Graces with ex-Go Go Charlotte Caffey and released an ill-received album in 1989), speaks of a higher purpose when it comes to writing and performing. "The album is about breaking through. It's always about resurrection," she said. "I'm an observer. I watch what's happening, and after it's happened, think, 'Now, if I could put that to lyrics, I will have said something really great.'"Hearing "Bitch," a celebration and honoring of a woman's light and dark sides, for the first time on the radio was memorable -- almost, she said. "I was in the shower and I could hear my manager screaming on my answering machine, something about my song on the radio," she said. "I didn't make it out in time to hear much of the song, though. The second time, I heard what I thought was that guitar solo in the beginning of the song. And it was, and I was so excited calling people that I missed it again. "The third time, I got so excited that I ran outside to tell my neighbor that it was on the radio and I locked myself out of my house. Didn't hear it." It hit home when she finally heard it in her car. "The American dream (for singers) is to hear it in the car," she said. "We're so centered on the car. That's when it really hit me, when I heard it for the first time in my car. I play all the guitars on the album and hearing all of them, knowing and remembering that that's me, that was really something." She reads books about metaphysics and psychology, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein and Native American myths when she's not performing. They affect her songwriting."Heart and mind work inspires me," she said. "I try to go for the mind and work from the heart when I do it. When I work from my instinct, when I write from that place, I find I'm right on. "What motivates me to still do this, because the lifestyle is hard, and I have a life, is the thought or possibility that I'll serve a higher purpose. That somewhere I might have an effect on people that's beyond the music. That just gets my ass up every day."She'll have played five Lilith concerts in total, and "Bitch" is expected to be one of the high points. The song, she said, is about honor. The chanting at the end was inspired by ritual chanting of Zuni Native Americans. "This song is about honor. It's about revealing and embracing all sides of yourself," she said. "Jung said that if we don't integrate the shadows in ourselves with the light, then we can never be whole individuals." It's not difficult to imagine the mythical Lilith, exiled and happy on the ancient banks of the Red Sea (see sidebar) singing softly along to Brooks' anthem about the husband who just couldn't take no for an answer: So take me as I am/This may mean you'll have to be a stronger man.McLachlan is looking forward to getting some of her favorite artists up on stage with her. One of her favorite Lilith moments so far happened on stage. "Oh, I think my favorite moments have been on stage, when I've been able to play with so many people I admire. That serendipitous moment like when Tracy Chapman got up on stage and sang "Proud Mary" with us." The Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers can't wait. "Oh, me and Amy, that's our thing. We told Sarah that we'd love to do that," she said. "We'll be knocking on everyone's door, and whomever can come play with us will be great. Amy and I love to get other performers on stage with us and just play. We're going to do our best to make sure that happens." And look for Lilith III next year, said McLachlan. "I'm also thinking about adding men next time," she said. "I've taken so much flack for that. It's like you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't." The media-labeled "women in music thing" is more than a passing fancy, she claimed."It's been the year of the women for a decade now. This just shows how far we have to go as a music industry and as a society until this just becomes 'music.'"**************** SIDEBAR FOR LILITH FAIR STORYLilith: The Rebellious First Woman By Linda ClerkinHebrew tradition tells the story of Lilith, Adam's first wife, whom God created out of the same earth as was Adam. An early version of Genesis, according to rabbinical commentators, records God's first attempt at creating woman.Knowing she had been formed from the same clay as Adam and claiming equality because of it, Lilith refused to subjugate herself to her companion's will. To end a situation she considered intolerable, she spoke what the mystic-sensitive rabbis called "The Name That Is Not to Be Spoken," a spell of sorts, and vanished. According to myth, she settled along the Red Sea, choosing to live alone rather than enslaved. Adam complained to God, who sent three angels to capture Lilith. She escaped. God eventually created the more docile Eve, making her not out of earth -- like Adam and Lilith -- but out of her husband's own flesh. Author Hallie Inglehart Austen, in her book The Heart of the Goddess (Berkeley, CA, Wingbow Press, 1990), theorizes that Lilith was originally a Sumerian goddess called the Divine Lady, whose roots reach into ancient Mesopotamia, dating to 2,300 years before the common era. The Divine Lady was worshipped as a assertive and sexually self-possessed wild spirit of the night. By the time stories about her found their way into the rabbinical legend as Adam's first wife in the 10th century of the common era, her story had been changed from goddess to dark and dangerous temptress to be cast out. Folk lore and superstitions rampant during the Middle Ages often included stories about Lilith and her daughters, known as "the Lilim," who were said to visit and tempt men while they slept.