Lilith Fair was only around in earnest for three years—from 1996 to 1999, though there was a revival in 2010—but the impact of the all-female festival still resounds to this day, if only because, in this festival-choked culture, there isn’t a modern equivalent at the same scale. The touring festival, created in part by songwriter Sarah McLachlan, was a wild success, drawing tens of thousands of fans to each date and raking in more than $52 million once all was said and done (more than $10 million of that was donated to women’s charities). Lilith Fair was also way ahead of its contemporaries in terms of creating an inclusive space for female artists. “It was probably one of the first ‘safe spaces’ in the history of the entertainment industry,” recalls songwriter Nelly Furtado, a Lilith Fair alum.
Furtado joins a massive roster of names in Vanity Fair’s new oral history of the festival, which includes recollections from McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Liz Phair, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Aimee Mann, among many, many others. The rocky origins of the fest are coupled with the sheer necessity of it in an era when festivals were macho, piss-soaked cesspools. “There were lots of identity-driven and niche-oriented festivals—like so many takes on the idea of ‘alternative,’” says critic Ann Powers. “Tibetan Freedom Concert, Guinness Fleadh, which had an Irish theme. Warped Tour. Ozzfest. But what all these ‘alternatives’ had in common was 90–95% male lineups. Lilith flipped the numbers.” She continues, “That a festival, this thing that is always about rock, about male bonding, even about violence, would re-center itself on women’s comfort and pleasure and self-expression—that felt really rare.”
The oral history goes to explore the skepticism from those in the industry—a number of female artists, too, recall finding it “corny” at first glance—and how its initial burst of popularity birthed a beast that became tricky for McLachlan and her team to manage in its second and third years, especially once the tides turned with the rise of boy bands, Britney Spears, and TRL culture.
There’s a number of sweet stories contained within, many of which center on how the festival allowed women to connect instead of compete. “It defied that notion that women are constantly competing,” says Crow, who’s one of many interviewees to discuss how aggressively male-dominated the industry was at the time. Phair, meanwhile, credits her time with the festival for her desire to write and record a pop album. Jewel talks about being too nervous to introduce herself to idols like Emmylou Harris and Tracy Chapman. Current chart-topper Brandi Carlile remembers attending her first Lilith Fair at the age of 16, saying it was “this kind of very, very maternal and feminine environment” that’s all too rare, even today. “It was the highlight of all my 50 years of playing,” says Bonnie Raitt.
“What really shook people about Lilith was that it made an overt statement,” says Powers. “I think a lot of men in the industry were made uncomfortable by Lilith, because it messed with their own conception of themselves as equitable toward women. You know, that having one or two women in your band, label, magazine, whatever, made you a cool feminist dude.”
Also, Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kattan apparently wanted to make a movie called Billith Fair where he dressed in drag so he could play the festival. Which sounds fucking awful.
Read the full oral history here.