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Recycling Feminism–Lilith Fair Returns With Plaid Shirts and Environmentalism on the Coattails of a Nineties Revival

September 18, 2009
It was 1994. Seventeen magazine proclaimed that bellbottoms and vintage things were cool, so my sister and I began to cruise the then untapped thrift stores for flared corduroys, old sweaters, leather boots, and graphic Beefy tees that came out before companies started printing on skinny American Apparel shirts.
A dew-faced Katherine Heigl before her Grey's days

A dew-faced Katherine Heigl before her Grey's days

My best friend Susie clued me in to Army Navy surplus stores, incense, sundresses, and throwback Lorraine Schneider buttons that said things like “war is not healthy for children and other living things.”
This vintage graphic became contemporary again in the '90s

This 1966 message became contemporary again in the '90s

While sewing inserts into my pant-legs to make them ever wider, my mom remarked that what they’d taught her in design school was true – the fashion trends of any given time period undergo a renaissance every 30 years. At the time, though, it seemed that more than just fads had recycled themselves into the nineties. Woodstock ’94 (never mind its problems) commemorated the 25th anniversary of the mind-altering event of 1969. Ad campaigns, t-shirts, and celebrities alike called for better stewardship of Mother Earth. The double-sided image in the ‘80s of females as androgynous tycoon or hyper sex object gave way to streaks of feminism that recalled the organic movement of the ‘60s.
Androgynous Annie Lennox, Hypersexy Madonna

The 80s Woman: Androgynous Annie Lenox, hypersexy Madonna

Here were the days of the flower child, the riot grrrl, G.I. Jane, and pregnant cover girls. Even “the Mediterranean look” was fair game; it seemed that women could be alluring and powerful just by being themselves.

The all-powerful Demi Moore and Cindy Crawford

The 90s Woman: Demi Moore as G.I. Jane in 1997, a pregnant Cindy Crawford on the cover of W in 1999

Now you try thinking of some quintessential elements of the nineties. I mean, try to really stretch beyond the easy reference points of Reality Bites and Nirvana to actual Teen Spirit deodorant, B.U.M. Equipment boxers over leggings, Caboodles, and Ten-o-Six facial cleanser.

Smells like...

Smells like...

Now look around you—repackaged nineties culture has been popping up everywhere. For starters, Natalie Portman shaved her head on set of V for Vendetta in 2006 , yet got the same degree attention that Demi Moore did a decade earlier with the bold move.

Natalie Portman gets it all taken off in 2006 on the set of 'V for Vendetta'

Natalie Portman gets it all taken off in 2006 on the set of 'V for Vendetta'

Plaid shirts came sneaking back to us last year. This year, peace symbols and head wraps are in full effect, and Taking Woodstock is on the big screen.  Global warming has re-emerged as a topic of discussion, and movements towards corporate responsibility and sustainability seem to be picking up where the ‘90s abruptly left off.

Yes, the 30 year revival cycle seems to have collapsed into less than half the normal time, as if rushing to fill the stylistic and cultural vacuum that plagued the early 2000s. What’s next? The mainstreaming of feminism, of course! Emphasis on mainstreaming, which was a hallmark of the movement in the ‘90s. Nowhere was this truer than in music, where even the hardcore and underground was en vogue with the masses. Before Julia Roberts shocked everyone with the wave seen ‘round the world at her Notting Hill premiere in 1999…

Notting style: Julia Roberts gives a wave to feminism in 1997

Notting style: Julia Roberts gives a wave to feminism in 1997

a musician named Paula Cole came out of nowhere with her head full of songs and her armpits full of hair. Lyrical goddess Sarah McLachlan picked Cole up for an independently booked tour in 1996, and the Lilith Fair was hatched the very next year. McLachlan and company named the festival after a woman out of an ancient Hebrew tale.  Said to be the original wife of Adam, she fled from Eden after refusing to suboordinate herself to her husband.

A depiction of Lilith by painter John Collier, 1892

A depiction of Lilith by painter John Collier, 1892

Back in 1998, McLachlan insisted that “any social and political issues were secondary” to the theme of good music by artists who happened to all be women. However, there was no denying the importance of the idea, which had been born out of the music industry’s refusal to double bill her with another woman (Paula Cole) in the first place.

The unambiguously female duo: Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole

The unambiguously female duo: Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole

I was there for the very tour in 1998. A bunch of girls and I drove out to a venue in Mansfield, Massachusetts that was then known as Great Woods (and still is, as far as true fans are concerned).

The crowd files into Great Woods for Lilith '98

The crowd files into Great Woods for Lilith '98

Wide-eyed, we walked amongst diverse throngs of girls and guys, dipping into the side-stages where Abra Moore, K’s Choice, and Bic Runga were  rocking and crooning within throwing distance of us. It was the closest I had ever been to a live musician, and the farthest away I would ever permit myself to be at a concert I’m paying for. At dusk, we all rounded into the main amphitheatre, where Bonnie Raitt’s castrating solos and the singing of Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLachlan, and Paula Cole left us in real tears. We didn’t know it then, but we had contributed to a tradition begun the year before with $16 million in ticket sales, making it the top-grossing fest that summer which earned millions for local North American charities.

Lilith 1997: Say what you will, but the tour was a huge financial and social success

Lilith 1997: Say what you will, but the tour was a huge financial and social success

Over the following two years, the tour hit more cities and drew greater audiences, logging in $53 million and 1.6 million people to the Billboard Boxscore. I was a part of all this, but am guilty with many others of forgetting, especially after the tour ended with too much speculation and too little explanation by McLachlan herself .

I am even surprised to find that Nettwerk’s Terry McBride announced that the Lilith Fair will return in 2010. A part of me doesn’t even believe it. After so many years of being fed barely legal pop stars and barely human female role models through popular channels of entertainment, I can barely remember a time when even the most mainstream women artists were grungy, powerful, talented, and raw. The bespectacled Lisa Loeb and superbly Sapphic Indigo girls once ruled the airwaves. Since then, it’s been all about Shakira’s oral fixation (for the record, her older stuff is far better), Britney’s kiss with Madonna, and debates about whether or not Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus’s pole dancing at this year’s Teen Choice Awards was in good taste.

The point of this article is not to criticize oral fixations or bemoan girl-on-girl action or evaluate the appropriateness of Miley’s dance as a function of how old she is, how far away she stood from the pole, and to what extent she gyrated around it. I just want to ask everyone out there—suppose the Lilith Fair did return next year. Would you go? Who would you want in the line-up?

I recently asked a dude, “Hey, remember the Lilith Fair?”

Pffff,” he said, rolling his eyes. To me, this indifference embodied more than the typical male condescension and fear towards anything that distinguishes itself as all-female. His dismissal of the Fair represented a general cultural forgetfulness about the greatness of the fact that, for whatever reason, a purely female line-up proved that it could pull in the bucks like any other tour.

Unfortunately, the Lilith Fair 2010 website is but a front page teaser for the time being, and articles about the original tours from 1997 through 1999 are devastatingly scarce online. This only makes it easier to pass off the phenomenon of the Lilith Fair as a short-lived bust where lesbians and bitter alternative chicks reveled with their ugly clogs and bad hair. Wears the Trousers magazine, which follows the every move of diverse female musicians, shows that even some female artists who would add fantastic elements to Lilith 2010 are actually reluctant to get pscyhed about an all female tour, going so far as to reduce the magic of the original tour to an event for “white people who wanted to see the Indigo Girls.” (SO untrue, says this Asian-American author and attendee!) Hmm. I’d be able to agree with these worries about self-marginalization if female artists were still getting the same play that they were in the ’90s instead of feeling special about being selling points (no matter how talented) in male-led bands…

In my opinion, Lilith Fair 2010 does not contradict the glorified “gender-blind dream” of naysayers like St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, but instead poses a tremendous opportunity to support and publicize female artists who still play their own instruments, write their own lyrics, and blaze trails in an industry that simply remains dominated by men.

The extent to which an artist supports an endeavor obviously betrays her sense of how successful it will be. So are the female artists of today so cowed by mainstream preferences that they actually believe that Lilith will tank and leave them on the fringes of society? Who are the ladies with some proverbial balls? Are they hiding, or have we the listeners been stuck in caves of passivity as a neutered pop culture was shoved down our throats?

Wonder if Northern State is game for 2010?

Wonder if Northern State is game for 2010?

We should answer these questions for ourselves, and use this nineties revival as an excuse to try remembering and redefining of music women…or people who happen to be women–whatever sounds better to you.

Based in Andover, Massachusetts, Jia H. Jung is a Master of Pacific and International Affairs accounting for an international wholesaler. You can contact her at jia.h.jung@gmail.com

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