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Cover story

A fair mix of spirituality, music


Editor’s note: In part because of the Lilith Fair, a travelling pop music festival with an all-female lineup, an entire generation is growing up listening to the songs of strong, intelligent, successful women. As the leading vehicle for those women to gain exposure, the event’s social impact may be incalculable.

There’s also an undeniable spiritual streak to the Lilith experience. Many young seekers see the concerts, both the music and the people who are drawn to hear it, as a place to explore spiritual questions outside traditional denominational settings. For young Catholics, the fair may have special meaning (see accompanying article, page 16). It likewise offers left-wing organizers a receptive young audience.
NCR pop music critic Robin Taylor caught the Lilith Fair in Salt Lake City, Utah.


When I was in junior high, I longed to be beautiful. My parents did their best to reassure me that I was fine, but I never quite believed them. I searched out beauty tips in teen magazines at the library in secret, since my mother didn’t approve of them. What could I do to make my hair behave? My cheeks rosy? My nails elegant?

There were girls around me who were pretty. I saw them every day at school. They had boyfriends. They had clothes from the mall, instead of home-sewn ones like I had. They had the guts to try out for cheerleader and they flaunted their tiny skirts all day long on game days. They had something that I didn’t, a secret they wouldn’t share.

It was a long time before I recovered from that junior high school angst. I wish that Lilith Fair would have been around then, because I think it would have helped. Billed as “a celebration of women in music,” it is also a celebration of girlhood, of a powerful femininity that honors itself and embraces others, too.

Lilith Fair founder and star Sarah McLachlan had her share of troubles in junior high, too. She tells her audiences she knows it’s hard to be a teen and encourages them to look inside for a place where they can be strong and at peace. She took her message and her music to more than 50 different concert venues all across the United States and Canada this summer.

McLachlan was not alone for this second annual all-women’s Lilith Fair tour, a traveling music festival. Over the course of the tour, McLachlan was joined by some of today’s most popular female performers, including Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, the Indigo Girls, Sinead O’Connor, Bonnie Raitt, Liz Phair, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris.

In late August, McLachlan, Cole, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb and the Cowboy Junkies took the stage in Park City, Utah, a ski town, not far from Salt Lake City, that’s also home to the Sundance Film Festival. It was a day of strange, changing weather -- bursts of sunshine, followed by clouds, pounding showers, clear skies and rain again hours later as the concert drew to a close.

At the news conference before the show, a sleepy looking Paula Cole sat on one side of McLachlan, Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies on the other. Dar Williams and Blair Tefkin from the band Lucie Gamelon rounded out the crew, while Utah artist Stacy Lee joined them near the end of the conference. Osborne never did make it.

Suddenly so close

It was unnerving to suddenly be so close to women that I’d long admired, successful artists who were making a living doing what they love who inspired me to follow my own heart as well. I’d spent hours singing along to McLachlan’s melodies while driving, scrubbing the sink, cutting onions, writing. I’d discovered Cole more recently after hearing her songs on the radio. I loved their music’s vulnerability and wondered how they were able to read my heart.

Suddenly they were a few feet from me, ready to answer questions -- even a question of mine if I had the guts to ask it. I’d taken the seat closest to the microphone. Even so, I doubted that I’d have the courage.

Early on, it was clear there was basis to my fears. McLachlan had been through more than 50 news conferences this summer and no longer felt the need to spare reporters’ feelings. In the first few minutes, she attacked the “lazy journalism” she said was behind much of the criticism of the Lilith Fair this summer. She also charged that some notable women musicians quoted as opposing the idea of an all-women’s music festival actually had their remarks taken out of context. Among these was Tori Amos, the gutsy, piano-playing singer who, with her millions of albums sold and a recent release called “from the choirgirl hotel,” seemed like a perfect Lilith candidate.

“I’ve spoken to Tori Amos,” McLachlan said. “She had ultimate respect [for Lilith Fair], but she was getting asked every single day, ‘Why aren’t you on Lilith Fair? Why aren’t you part of this?’ and I’m sure that in itself was getting frustrating to her, like what’s wrong with me wanting to do my own thing? And absolutely, I agree, there’s nothing wrong with it. We’d love to have her here, but I have respect for her wish to do her own thing, too. We’re not like the Borg. We don’t assimilate.”

Earlier, another reporter implied that Cole’s meteoric success this past year, including her Grammy for “Best New Artist” was partly due to McLachlan and last summer’s Lilith Fair. McLachlan said, “Her success had to do with herself. Not Lilith Fair.”

Cole continued, a bit more gently, “I do feel that everything is meant to be. I don’t believe in luck. And I believe that Sarah and I, somehow our paths were meant to collide in our lifetime. I think somehow it’s been mutually beneficial.”

“Absolutely,” McLachlan added.

Perhaps McLachlan’s acid tongue was due in part to just being tired. She had performed her first Lilith Fair show more than two months earlier in Portland, Ore. Since then, she’d traveled from California to New Mexico, Ohio to New York, Maryland to Texas and numerous towns in between. She performed 25 shows in July alone.

That’s a lot of miles to log on a bus, a lot of nights sleeping on the road. At every stop, she’d had a news conference. At every stop, she’d answered questions that probably started to sound annoyingly similar. The Utah show was their 53rd (“But who’s counting?” a Lilith Fair staff member said).

How radio changed

Eventually, the questions moved to areas more to the artists’ liking. They talked about how last summer’s festival helped change the nature of U.S. and Canadian radio and how those changes could help lead to improvement in other women’s issues as well.

Williams said, “Before Lilith, I would hear one woman per hour on the radio, and now it’s half and half. I hear women played back to back, which used to be a real faux pas. It was thought to be bad marketing. So something erupted out of one summer’s festival, and I think there’s a lot that women can learn about asserting themselves, how successful that can be.”

The Lilith fair presence in Utah was especially encouraging to women there, one reporter said. A writer for an alternative paper and an expert in Mormon feminism, she told the panel that their music inspired many Utah women and helped them remember their value in the midst of a culture entrenched in polygamy and misogynist attitudes.

It isn’t only women who suffer. A stunned McLachlan learned of a Utah legislative decision that banned all extracurricular clubs in schools after students at one school started a gay and lesbian support group. She said, “How could they do that?”

“This is Utah,” the reporter replied.

McLachlan said, “I’ve heard rumors that Utah is definitely a little further back in some ways, certainly in its treatment toward women. I can only speak for myself and say that I believe in equality. We all should have respect for each other as human beings that surpasses gender or race. Without getting too political, I hope that Lilith Fair does help in sending a positive message to women and to men as well that it’s OK to celebrate women, it’s OK to celebrate the uniqueness and diversity that everybody has. In the same way I think it’s important for men to celebrate their uniqueness and diversity. I just wish that people wouldn’t be threatened by that.”

The toughest question

At last, a break. I stepped to the mike before I could change my mind and asked the question I had been writing and rewriting in my reporter’s notebook. How does their spirituality, which is such an integral part of their music, affect their day-to-day lives on the road and their performances?

Silence. Then giggles. Then calls for Tefkin from Lucy Gamelon to respond, since she’d been quiet for most of the conference. “We’ll give you the toughest question of all,” McLachlan said.

After more laughter, Tefkin said, “I just want to remember the words to the songs, and then I’ll be saying my thank yous at my prayers tonight. One day at a time. That’s my spirituality right there.”

“Exactly. That’s a good mantra,” McLachlan said. “One day at a time.”

The giggles subsided. Just when I thought that was it, that I had asked a profoundly inappropriate question, Williams began to speak. I could have hugged her. “I know that when I’m on the road I try to make it meaningful. The first year that I toured, it was a big adventure. It was really all-exciting. And then the next year, I felt like there was some conspiracy. Bad sound, bad presentation. I watched my blood pressure go up, which was very strange. ...

“I had to take control of turning the road into as meaningful an experience as home is, and I think that getting a real sense of the diversity of landscapes in this country has really informed my performances and my writing. I feel like there’s so much to be preserved in this country. It takes on a political and spiritual bent to see how much we have to save.”

Cole followed Williams. “Asking about our spirituality is a very deep question, so it’s hard to be eloquent and concise about it. I have to say that originally I didn’t want to be a touring performer. I wanted to be at home, in the safety of my home. But that has changed. In being a road warrior, I’ve come to love it, and I’ve found that it’s probably as close to nomadism as you can get. And to me that is a very spiritual lifestyle.

“You have to live out of one bag for months at a time. It’s lonely, and you have to be stoic and strong if you’re in a long-distance relationship. Being vegetarian or maintaining a vegan diet is very difficult. I feel like I have to forage for food in every city. So it requires inner strength to do what I do.”

Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies added, “I think that everything that Paula was saying is really true. I think that being on the road is really, really difficult. For me, the only reason I leave my home and the things I love most to come out on the road is to sing, and when I’m singing, that’s spiritual. I feel great, and it doesn’t matter that I sat in a stinky hotel room all day. I’m going to get to sing today, and there’s nothing better than that.”

It’s the connectedness

McLachlan said, “I think the spirit of connectedness, the feeling that you get when you play live, when I play live, is the closest thing to my idea of heaven and euphoria and complement and fulfillment -- which is rather frightening when you think that I’m going to be chasing that high all the time.” She laughed, and said, “But no, I’ve been able to find that in a lot of other aspects of my life now, which I think is really important.

“I find one of the most important things about defining spirituality is defining your own boundaries, and defining your own sense of balance and defining your sense of self. That’s been a big struggle for me. But one of the best things for me is the fact that I have had music as an outlet and as a form of expression, and it’s certainly nurtured my sense of spirituality and my feeling of connectedness to the world and to the energies.”

That spirit of connection permeated the makeshift village surrounding the concert site, where some of McLachlan’s favorite nonprofit groups had booths. Thousands of concertgoers passed through. They signed petitions, picked up literature, put their names on mailing lists. Amnesty International had a booth. So did RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), and the Sierra Club, with a box full of signed postcards against Utah’s proposed Legacy Highway that would “cut a swath through the internationally significant wetlands of the Great Salt Lake.”

The National Organization of Women distributed bright pink and white stickers that concertgoers wore on their shirts, stickers that read “We Demand: End Violence Against Women.” They also had postcards showing support for the expansion of the Violence Against Women Act. The Breast Cancer Fund handed out leaflets. LIFEbeat: the Music Industry Fights AIDS had prevention and informational materials.

“With the village that we have out everyday, we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that we -- myself and Lilith Fair -- believe in. But it’s not something that we shove down people’s throats. The information is there, and if people want to go get it and be made aware of what’s out there, then that’s cool,” McLachlan said.

The village was also a place to shop. Numerous artisans had booths with names like The Dancing Goddess and Eclectic Earth that sold everything from natural fiber clothing to incense, bath and body products to bumper stickers. You could get a concert blanket for $40 and know that the profits would benefit Girls Inc, a national organization devoted to empowering girls and creating an “equitable society.” A Planned Parenthood key chain would cost you $3, while a necklace or earrings designed by McLachlan herself would set you back $25.

Sales from candles shaped like full-figured women benefited ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. One artisan’s sign proclaimed: “I can write your name in rice.” Bumper stickers declared, “Eve was framed,” and “God favors no group/Only religions do that.” Starbucks, one of the fair’s corporate sponsors, had magnetic poetry boards outside their booth. “How they release the light through a broken shard of glass,” one board said.

He’s a ‘Lilith head’

Paul Reynolds is the kind of person one might find hanging around the village. A self-described “Lilith head,” the fair was his eighth of the summer. He planned to continue down the road with McLachlan and company, hoping to catch the Boise fair the next day.

“It’s just great music,” he said. “Look at the list. The Indigo Girls brought down the house when they played. Women are just making a lot of the good music that’s out there today. Guys are mostly making crap, the same old stuff. They’ve had free reign. Now it’s the women’s turn.”

As the temperature dropped, many in the crowd got up off their blankets and out of their seats and began to dance. It was a great way to get warm. Joan Osborne and her band, dressed in white cover-ups, played the hits off her breakthrough album, Relish. “St. Teresa” and “Spider Web” spun out into the darkness.

Osborne tweaked the words to “One of Us,” a song that wonders what you would ask God if you had “just one question.” Instead of “Except for the pope maybe in Rome,” she sang, “Except for the pope when she’s in Rome,” a change met by laughter and wild whooping.

Paula Cole took the stage after Osborne. Gone was the sleepy, pale woman from the news conference who talked about loneliness and the difficulties of life on the road. In her place was a dynamic, energized artist who strutted, danced, and played the piano with a breathtaking passion. An old, cushy chair at the front of the stage held a picture of Bob Marley, perhaps a reminder for Cole of one of her mentors.

The crowd’s fervor, which had grown steadily since Loeb took the stage hours earlier, reached new peaks as Cole sang the hits from her last album, This Fire. As she sang “Me,” “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” and “I Don’t Want to Wait,” the crowd moved, a swaying mass that clapped, bounced and sang. Young girls danced in groups with their friends, just girls. Young women did the same. Other young women throughout the crowd raised their hands, closed their eyes and screamed with a passion that was previously reserved for male heartthrobs like the Beatles, Shaun Cassidy or New Kids on the Block.

Cole was gracious, kind, larger than life, a poised and generous performer. She thanked the crowd profusely and said, “I’m feeling kind of special tonight, so I hope you’ll go with me on this journey,” before launching into yet another song. The crowd was smitten.

Singing in the rain

The only person who could top Paula Cole at this festival was the woman who took the stage last: Sarah McLachlan. The festival was her brainchild, her baby, and the crowd honored her for it. “I love you, Sarah,” one man called out. “That’s sweet,” McLachlan replied.

She thanked her audience for coming, for hanging on through the grisly afternoon weather. Her voice was clear and strong from the first notes of “Sweet Surrender” through her other hits, including “Building a Mystery” and “Adia.” At one point, Cole joined McLachlan for a duet and proved that she not only sings but also whistles like a champion.

Near the end of McLachlan’s set, the rain and heavy winds began again in full force. McLachlan continued to sing, even though the Lilith backdrop came off its hinges and the stage lights wobbled, and the rain blew onto her, her band, her equipment. It was too much to hope that she would continue through the storm; the grand finale, which was to have featured all the day’s performers in a group sing-along of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” was canceled.

McLachlan has long said that there is no political agenda behind Lilith Fair. Instead, the impetus for last summer’s fair was just to do something fun. “We had an amazing summer last time,” she said. “It was incredibly rewarding for me on so many levels, and I guess I hoped [this summer] would be more of the same, and it’s exceeded those expectations.”

The fact remains, however, that Lilith Fair is more than just a good time. It’s an event that has raised more than a million dollars for charity over the past two years, while earning more than $16 million last year. McLachlan and the other performers are role models for millions of young fans who scream for them, idolize them, imitate them.

McLachlan acknowledges that Lilith Fair can be empowering for young girls, who “see a lot of women in positive positions doing something they love,” but hastens to add that “the message is really up to the individual and what they choose to get out of it.”

Perhaps that’s the way it should be. Maybe young girls in the pit of junior high school depression leave Lilith Fair with a deepened sense that they’re OK just as they are. After all, if Sarah and Paula say it’s true, sending out comfort in songs like “Good Enough” and “Me,” then it must be so. Maybe struggling musicians come away with greater faith in themselves, inspired by the way local artists are honored on the village stage. Maybe Utah women found comfort in the Lilith presence. Maybe all that was just the beginning. I know it was for me.

When Cole smiled at me at the news conference and said, “After years of singing, I’ve come to realize that ‘no ego Paula,’ I’m not the source. I’m me, and that maintains my humility,” something shifted in me. The chasm -- the one that separated me from the beautiful ones in junior high school, that made me an awkward, frightened reporter now -- closed. Where before Cole had been famous, poised, confident, apart from me, suddenly she was speaking to me, sharing her heart. And the dreams that I have, the ones that I barely whisper to myself -- suddenly, they were not so impossible.

It’s like she said. It’s not about me or her or any of us. It’s greater than that. The gulf that separates the beautiful from the average, the successful from the ordinary, is not as wide as I think. Maybe it doesn’t exist at all, except in my head.

Robin Taylor lives in Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998