Toronto
4 min

She who lashes last

Dissin' sisters versus Lilith lovers

CHARITABLE. Sarah McLachlan charges festival critics with a lack of knowledge. Credit: Xtra files

Three summers ago, Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair broke new ground by being the first touring concert festival that didn’t simply include women musicians – it celebrated them.



The whole she-bang was inspired by music industry sexism, as McLachlan once explained: “I was doing a tour and wanted Paula Cole to open. I got weird vibes from promoters in America who said, ‘We don’t want to put two women on the same bill.’ I thought their attitude was really pathetic.”



And so it began. Part celebration, part mission; la Lilith has done an incredible amount of good, not just for women, but for society in general. Anything so groundbreaking, however, is bound to garner stiff opposition. It was no surprise to find the extreme right kicking against this “feminist festival,” one which – by supporting Planned Parenthood and the like – was seen as unabashedly pro-abortion and therefore anti-God and country.



It was also no shock when all the doubting Thomases in the music industry – even the most flagrant offenders – publicly denied that they had ever spoken such sexist utterances.



What was surprising was the anti-Lilith rants coming from lesbians. Much of the brouhaha came to light last spring in the form of a heavily-slanted piece in Girlfriends Magazine, called “Deconstructing A Mystery: Denial, Deceit And Divas At Lilith Fair.” Writer Angelina Malhotra-Singh charged “McLachlan’s homophobic coterie” of “disown[ing] their lesbian predecessors” by “posing as the first independent all-female music festival.”



In the article, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival producer Lisa Vogel charged that Lilith “pisses [her] off” and that the festival’s hierarchy “deny that independent women’s festivals like Michigan… had any influence on Lilith at all.



“I’ll tell you what it comes down to,” Vogel protested. “They’re afraid of being seen as dykes.”



So much fury, so little word count. Where to begin?



When lucidity is at bay, Bif Naked saves the day. “I think that those same people should stand up and fucking thank her,” retorts Naked. “Sarah is doing what no one else in that upper echelon in the music industry is: Giving one dollar from every ticket from every city to local charities in that area. Fuck them! You go ahead and do a 50-date tour and give all that money to a local charity, then come and diss Sarah!”



While this is Bif’s first year performing on the Lilith stage (appearing on a number of dates in the US and Canada), she is certainly an expert on being a so-called “woman in rock.” Starting 10 years ago fronting a punk band, Naked’s career has been on a constant rise, from her hardcore days on through to her present day pop presence.



“So much money from each show goes to charity. Everyone has a mother, a daughter, a sister or a wife, so everyone should be attending.”



Kinnie Starr is another musician who takes to task the Lilith-haters. This Vancouver hip-pop artist has performed both at Michigan and Lilith, and is expressly concerned with what she describes as “useless” criticism.



“There is no fucking reason to diss other women,” says Starr. “Whether it is in a commercial form or not, it doesn’t matter. You are still seeing women working together to produce positive breeding grounds for music and ideas. You can’t knock it!



“People claim that Sarah has taken ideas from Michigan…. Well, has Sarah even been? I don’t think that is relevant; I don’t see Lilith being set up the way Michigan is at all.



“Speaking from the perspective as an artist, it’s an extremely valuable way of letting record companies [know that] people are interested in what women are doing. It’s basically a foothold. There are a lot of women musicians who don’t have an extremely broad fan base or a lot of support from their label who can now say ‘Look! Just give me a fucking chance! Take a look at the most successful concert series for the last three years – it’s all women!'”



Having done hundreds of interviews on the subject, Lilith founder Sarah McLachlan has heard it all, from the worst criticism to the most flowery praise. “My trouble with criticism,” she says, “is that it’s not well researched. The criticism was not based in any kind of reality.



“People that hadn’t even come to see the show were pre-judging it. The one negative criticism that I not necessarily agreed with, but understood where it was coming from, was the lack of diversity. Now, I felt that it was very diverse; it absolutely could have been way more diverse than it was. I said the same thing!



“My issue was the criticism where people said, ‘You didn’t bother. You didn’t bother to get these other kinds of music.’ It’s like, ‘No, sorry. Do your research! We asked everybody. This is who said yes.'”



Addressing charges of homophobia, McLachlan has this to say: “Well, I never bothered to ask anybody what their sexuality was. If any of us dared to ask anyone what their sexuality was – if that was any reason for them to get on or off the show – could you imagine the repercussions there? Talk about fascism! I’m absolutely live-and-let-live.”



Is Lilith Fair the be-all, end-all? Absolutely not; nothing is, nothing will be. There will be other tours of women singers. One day, there may be a tour featuring lesbian singers.



As any stroll through the grounds at a Lilith concert demonstrates, the event has strong support from dyke fans. Lilith’s opponents should take their negative, chastising energy and instead put it to much better use: fundraise, educate, or create your own festival that reflects your own philosophy. Contributing is far more empowering.