OK I admit it. I fell for the hype at the very last minute. After hearing about the Lilith festival for months, I bought this summer's hot concert ticket to see every pseudo-feminist chick singer-songwriter in heavy MTV rotation. At first glance, Lilith turned me off, what with their lacy, Renaissance Faire-style advertising pledging their hearts to a "celebration of women in music." So wholesome! Such earnest femininity! I felt like I was being solicited by the folk-rock equivalent of a Girl Scout troop.
But on the eve of their appearance at the Shoreline Amphitheater near San Francisco, it hit me that the most exciting part of Lilith wasn't the artists, but the fans. The origin of the boom in women rockers -- those self-proclaimed bitches, goddesses, whores and witches -- goes back to the days long before Apple Computer and United Airlines chose female music stars as emissaries for their corporate messages. There was a phenomenon called "women's music," which was really lesbian music, cultivated for years and years at all-women music festivals, bucolic events resembling separatist summer camps with all the trimmings.
The secret hype about Lilith is that it's a babefest! Every young dyke in a black bra and baggy shorts will be there! It may not have the purity of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (i.e., men are admitted and so are professional concert promoters), but how could any self-respecting gay girl on the prowl miss out on this meeting of minds and flesh?
The real heavy-hitters of the Lilith tour are not the organizer, Sarah McLachlan, or the new stars like Jewel and Paula Cole, but the actual veterans of the lesbian music circuit, like the Indigo Girls, who are out of the closet on their latest album, or Tracy Chapman, who is so shy that she hardly says a word about herself in any direction, although she's made no effort to hide her relationships with women.
The lesbo inspiration for the Lilith fest is overdue for an outing. Lesbians have been too isolated and paranoid to take credit for it, and straight music people have been too arrogant and indifferent to give it to them, but it took the combination of feminism and dyke attitude to give rock 'n' roll a female face. Nice girls who aspired to marriage and babies wouldn't have been interested in riffing on an electric guitar and opening their veins on everything from incest to genocide. No, it's been lesbians, filled with the passion of the underdog, who created not only those first groundbreaking tunes, but also the venues and independent labels that presented them. They were aided and abetted by the kind of straight girls who are often called sluts, fag-hags and ball-busters. When Chrissie Hynde sang, "I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for," it sure didn't signal her lesbian tendencies, but she fit in real nice with her deviant sisters.
I meet a lot of young women today who are drooling over the prospect of their first electric guitar, and they're of every type and sexual preference. Yet the sense they carry that they're entitled to express themselves musically is the legacy of a whole lot of topless women sitting around in drum circles and howling at the moon. As I lined up to enter the amphitheater, I wondered: Would Lilith make me tremble with the possibilities of the next generation of women's music, or would it be the Pepsi-fication of yet another grass-roots movement?
Here's a quick checklist comparing the Lilith Fair with your average women's music festival:
Locale: Professional amphitheater with broken big-screen monitors
Volume: About as loud as you would play the radio in the car with your grandma in the passenger seat
Men: All over the place, running things
Security: SWAT-trained sadists who aren't about to let you stand there and eat a hot dog without moving your butt back to your assigned seat
Sexiest chicks: Peachy's Puff's cigarette girls selling $3 M&M's
Food: Garlic fries
Cost: $23.50 to sit in Siberia
Time: 6 hours
Public Service Booths: Birth control and AIDS prevention tables that any 14-year-old could learn something from
Not Allowed: Spontaneity
Most Awesome Performer: Tracy Chapman
AVERAGE DYKE FEST
Locale: Hot, dusty, mosquito-infested national forest lands
Men: None -- except for a few clever ones in drag
Security: Bar-trained butches who are just as officious as anyone at Shoreline, but are such insane fans themselves that they understand that you really need to be 10 inches closer to Amy Ray
Sexiest chicks: Leather femmes with labia piercings
Food: Vegan hash brownies
Cost: Volunteer to clean the port-a-potties all week and you're in for free music and camping
Time: At least 72 hours
Public Service Booths: Dildo table with treehouse dressing room for trying on strap-ons
Not Allowed: Heterosexual braggadocio
Most Awesome Performer: Tracy Chapman
Clearly, when it comes to sheer fun, if you're female and can stand the heat and the flies, you're better off at a true Dyke-O-Rama. Lilith, with the exception of Ms. C., was a snooze. My buddy Cherry and I spent all of Suzanne Vega's set trying to compose a personal ad to help Cherry in mending her recently broken heart. We discussed various possibilities, and by the time Paula Cole mounted the stage, we'd settled on: "FUCKED-UP CHICK NEEDS A DATE, CALL 510-XXX-XXXX." I promised Cherry that Paula would have killer abs, and sure enough, she appeared in the exact same crop top she wears on MTV and performed the exact same dance steps and song phrasing that she does on the tube. The Paula Hologram! Next up was Jewel, who is adorable, with a bosom that belongs on the cover of a romance novel and the warm audience rapport of a Grand Ol' Opry star. Her hit song, "Who Will Save Your Soul," gave me goose bumps, but whenever she strayed from the topic of broken hearts, her space-case liberalism destroyed her sex appeal.
When Chapman arrived on stage, she, like some of my other heroines, showed me what a hole was for. Our mouths fell open when she started demonstrating her circular breathing on a digeridoo, and then we simply fell into her spell. Each song she began was like an old Dylan tune, a perfect poem of justice denied and love's cruel attachments. She can sing Dylan under a table, though.
Finally, McLachlan closed the show ... a sad time slot for a sad gal. She stopped between each quavering tune to thank us profusely for coming to "this incredible event," to celebrate "these amazing women." I think that was code for, "Don't hate me for following the only person in this concert who can write her way out of a paper bag."
But we didn't hate Sarah -- we guessed how hard it is to not be a big brave dyke/whore/menace and still try to copy the best and the wildest pioneers of women's music. Gosh, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I went straight home and put on my favorite Janis Joplin album really, really loud. Didn't they always say she loved to eat pussy?