Before there was Gaga or Taylor, before pussy hats or Beyoncé’s “girls in formation,” there was an epic all-female music festival created by women fed up with sexism in the music industry: Lilith Fair. This summer, in honor of the festival’s twentieth anniversary, we’re exploring the history and legacy of the festival, and why the fight for equality in the industry continues today. Read the oral history of Lilith—as told by the women who lived it—and more here.
At 19 years old, in 1999, Canadian duo Tegan and Sara got what seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime: performing at Lilith Fair. “Being asked to play was like, We’ve made it,” Tegan Quin tells us. The indie-pop sisters were just beginning their careers, and the prospect of playing a music festival alongside acts like Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow was incredible. “A lot of these huge touring rock festivals just had no women, or hardly any women, and you look at this lineup of Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Indigo Girls, and Dixie Chicks combining to have a festival, and that seems ideal to me,” Tegan explains. Since then, Tegan and Sara have released eight studio albums, played countless festivals — including Lilith’s revival in 2010 — and become advocates for LGBTQ and women’s rights.
And while they credit the festival for making strides for female musicians, they also acknowledge its shortcomings. “In a perfect world, all festivals would represent across-the-board diversity: women, people of color, and LGBTQ people,” Tegan notes. “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to have to be isolated in subgroups based on my sexuality or my gender,” Sara adds. “But then on the other hand, I think maybe there’s space for all of those things.”
So with the tenth anniversary of Tegan and Sara’s seminal album The Con and the twentieth anniversary of Lilith Fair approaching, we caught up with the two to talk about intersectionality, the “testosterone-fueled cock-fest” of the aughts, and whether Lilith Fair’s brand of feminism remains today.
GLAMOUR: What do you remember about your first show at Lilith Fair ’98?
Tegan: It was very close to when we graduated high school, so it was a very strange sensation. Being asked to play Lilith Fair was like, We’ve made it. It did not register or matter we were playing a village stage that actually had nothing to do with Lilith Fair. It wasn’t like Sarah McLachlan chose us — it likely would have been the local promoter booking that stage — but it didn’t matter. We were so excited anyway. Even then, we were aware of how powerful it was to have so many women on the same bill.
GLAMOUR: What did you know about Lilith Fair from the get-go? What kind of impressions did you have when they first approached you?
Sara: We were in high school [when Lilith Fair started], and I remember hearing about it and thinking it was great and a really cool idea — but we were also in a totally different genre of music because we were in a punk band. I remember thinking it was something my mom and her friends were really excited about. And just to give context: When I was in high school, my mom was the same age basically I am now — her late thirties. So I remember it being, you know, Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks; these were artists that I was totally aware of, but I was a punk teenager taking drugs and going to raves. I was not necessarily listening to that music.
GLAMOUR: In 2010, did you have any reservations about playing the revival?
Tegan: In a perfect world, all festivals would represent across-the-board diversity: women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. It goes without saying that I wish every festival had that mandate. To me, it’s completely a no-brainer; at this point, there’s no excuse for why festivals have such low numbers. I truly believe it’s complete laziness. I call out all festivals. I think it’s absolutely embarrassing, and we’re friends with lots of people who throw festivals. It’s shameful. But that being said, I think that there’s value in having an all-women festival, even if there were women represented on everything.
Sara: I always have this feeling of [wanting] to be included in all the festivals. I don’t want to just have to be on a festival for women or for a festival for gay people or whatever it is. I like the idea that there are festivals that are diverse and speak to a variety of types of genres and music and people. That’s where I sort of eventually ended up. But I do believe, at the time, it was a real revolutionary thing.
GLAMOUR: Do you think that Lilith Fair would work today? Would you play the festival?
Tegan: I want to believe it would. When I think about a female-fronted festival right now, with a range of huge artists, from P!nk and Alicia Keys to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to smaller artists like Tegan and Sara and Shura and MUNA and Grimes, there’s just so much incredible music. Look at how successful the Women’s March was. Obviously, we have millions of people who feel that women need to still be empowered; young girls still need encouragement and people to look up to.
Sara: I would totally play it. I have a lot of different opinions. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to have to be isolated in subgroups based on my sexuality or my gender. But then on the other hand, I think maybe there’s space for all of those things.
GLAMOUR: How would you describe the brand of feminism that Lilith had — and how do you describe what the crowd came there wanting?
Tegan: We were so young when Lilith first started that I wouldn’t put words in Sara’s mouth for why she did it. But I’m assuming now that we’ve had 20 years in the business, she probably did it for the same reason why I would want to: because there’s such a lack of women at festivals. Even the really alternative festivals — actually, the more alternative the festival, the more men. It opens a whole other can of worms as to why we felt so embraced by punk-pop and pop music because when we were considered an indie-rock band, we were surrounded by men all the time. It’s a very white, very heterosexual, and very male world. I often felt like we were outsiders because we weren’t even just a female-fronted indie-rock band, we were a queer band, and that didn’t always make us feel like we were accepted. It just made us feel awkward. I imagine that a lot of these huge touring rock festivals had no women, or hardly any women, and you look at this lineup of Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Indigo Girls, and Dixie Chicks combining to have a festival, and that seems ideal to me. I feel nervous and awkward playing festivals because there’s so much jockeying for position and camaraderie between certain kinds of bands, and often as the only queer band and the only female-fronted band, I feel awkward and left out.
GLAMOUR: Are there differences between the feminism of that time during Lilith Fair and the feminism of now that you’ve observed?
Sara: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. I think one of the things that has been required of all of us is recognizing that you can’t look at feminism or antiracism or being a good LGBTQ ally without considering intersectionality and all the different types of folks that are often grouped under these sort of umbrellas. Again, I was a teenager, and my politics were radical. They were also shaped by my mother, who was a feminist, a therapist, and an activist. I actually feel like it’s so refreshing because it’s an awakening for so many people. Things are so much better now. I have friends who are in bands that are in their early 20s, and they’re talking about these things that we felt so isolated about when we were first starting out.
GLAMOUR: Do you think that there are any ways in which the environment is not as progressive now as it was in the nineties?
Tegan: I think that when you take a step forward, there’s often an inevitable pushback. And I don’t think there’s enough research to explain why. There are lots of hypotheticals thrown out. For instance in Brazil, when they passed gay marriage, there was an increase in hate crimes. Now, were there actually more hate crimes, or are we just documenting them better now that there are actual laws to protect LGBTQ people? The early aughts was just a real intense, testosterone-fueled cock-fest. I don’t know if that was in response to Lilith Fair, but certainly there was an increase in that. That’s also when boy bands, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears blew up that late-nineties female-fronted era of music. There might be a parallel there. Maybe when we just have too much of one thing, it tips the scales and then we have to balance it all out. Right now, there are a lot of amazing female artists who are doing incredible things, are the top-selling artists, and are selling a lot of records. There’s a movement to diversify festival lineups, and there is change coming. I do believe it’s a cycle, for sure.
GLAMOUR: Do you think that the shift in mainstream music from mostly rock in the nineties to mostly pop now, or pop-oriented music, has helped women or made things more comfortable for women in music?
Tegan: As a woman who started more in a rock band, the first five years of our career, there was this incredible desire by people to classify us as folk, even though we were way more indie rock than rock. Jealous, The Con, and Sainthood were incredibly well-received [records], incredibly critically acclaimed, and did really well for us, and we had a lot of alternative radio play. But while we were much more respected and much more successful, we also received the most amount of homophobia and misogyny. And I think that was due to the fact that we were playing guitar. That sort of is [considered] male territory, and I think that there’s more men who get angry when you’re holding a guitar because they’re like, That’s mine. There is still very much a drought and a lack of women in the rock world.