Throwing ovaries

The second-grade sensibility of the pseudo-feminist Lilith Fair

By Sarah Vowell

Published July 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in his comedic new book, "The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll," rock critic Chuck Eddy describes watching the all-guy band Girls Against Boys at last year's Lollapalooza. From the Kansas City show he writes, "Some apparent ex-Deadhead with burgeoning middle-age-spread
asked me what they were called: 'That's great! Girls are always
trying to do shit better than boys! -- fuck that!!'"

Even though Girls Against Boys aren't on the current Lolla lineup, the
summer festival fare has co-opted their name. Because of the brouhaha surrounding the
all-female Lilith Fair, you can't open a newspaper or magazine lately without
wincing at this second-grade-of-the-mind afoot. When I saw the roster for this summer's Lollapalooza Festival -- Tool, Korn, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Prodigy, Tricky, Orbital, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Devo -- I thought, "Oh brother. All boys. Again." But if Lolla's boys are warding
off girl cooties, then Lilith's girls -- Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, Jewel,
Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, Joan Osborne, et al. -- are nailing a pretty pink sign
to their own cuter clubhouse marked, "NO BOYS ALLOWED."

Personally, I barely care. I won't be attending either shindig. Because,
hey, even though there's nothing I'd rather do than stand around for 18 hours in
90-degree heat with an aching back and a $5 beer listening to
music with 10,000 fellow music lovers -- because I sure love music and I
sure love the people who love music and I sure love the people who make
music, and what better way to prove I love music than to throw away, I
mean devote, a day of my life to worshipping at the altar of rock -- I'm the
type who prefers the mediated luxuries of home (there's a radio and a TV in
here and several places to sit). Even facing two hours at a club to
hear someone I actually care about is stretching it these days, and not just
because I want to avoid smoky-coat syndrome, but because the music made in
clubs sometimes seems completely incidental. Or, as Eddy puts it, "What
originally made me give up going to live shows in the late '80s was my sudden
brainstorm at an Ann Arbor gig by pre-Nirvana Seattle grungers Mudhoney that
concerts were more a social activity than a musical one, and my
main activity tended to be standing around waiting for them to end."

So even though I won't be sunburning at either festival, I've been
reading a lot about them, and so far, I haven't read one thing about Lilith
Fair that isn't complete puffery plastered with pseudo-feminist smiley-faces.
The headline for Jon Pareles' piece in the July 7 New York Times, for instance, offended me: "Sisterhood and Solidarity, With an Audience: Cheers for Self-Determination at a Touring
All-Female Festival." Lilith Fair isn't a picture of solidarity so much as a
picture of uniformity. McLachlan, the event's organizer, has chosen
singer-songwriters in her own image: pretty, polite, folksy moderates with
sensible hair and more melody than message. I'm surprised by the Times'
report that in the audience at the tour's first stop in George, Wash.,
"women outnumbered men by about 3-to-1" because these performers strike me as
just the sort of women most men seem to like: They're cute, nice and not
extravagantly smart.

This cheering "sisterhood and solidarity" tag is too pat, too 1974, too
rooted in the dusty notion that you should support your so-called sisters
whether you agree with them or not. Just because I have ovaries doesn't
make me feel solidarity with horrid Tracy Chapman and her obvious,
hippie-dippy songs like "The Rape of the World"; or claim sisterhood with
wimpy, meek-voiced Lisa Loeb; or cheer ditzy Sheryl Crow, whose song about how
"If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad" was probably meant as a defense
of eating ice cream or sleeping around or something, but I can't hear it
without imagining Joseph Stalin lip-synching it as a defense of
all things evil.

"It doesn't exclude men, it simply celebrates women," says McLachlan of the
tour. This is just the sort of treacly sentiment that favors fakey
platitudes over critical thinking. I don't celebrate McLachlan, whose
maudlin songs with lyrics like "Morning smiles like the face of a newborn
child, innocent, unknowing" are so saccharine my teeth hurt just thinking
about them. I can't celebrate Joan Osborne, whose phony blues-mama act gives
me the creeps. And I won't celebrate Jewel's mundane coffeehouse mush.

And if you think the performers come off sugary, you should get a load of
the Web site. Illustrated with a stupid woman-as-nature line drawing of a
nude female with a flower growing out of her head, is
posting a dopey diary of the event's progress, comprising commentary
along the lines of "Love is in the air tonight." Really. It even describes
the fair's admirable charitable fund-raising for women's causes in nauseating
language: "The corporate support has been divided into various thematic
categories, including Learning and Wellness."

McLachlan recently told Entertainment Weekly that, "after centuries of women's voices
and ideas being suppressed, we've finally come into a time where women can be
heard and respected and loved for what they say." I thought we'd come
into a time where women can be heard so that the world can decide whether or
not that individual is worth listening to. Love and respect are always optional.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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