The year was 1993 and Canadian singer- songwriter Sarah McLachlan had just released Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. She would spend the next two and half years climbing the charts and touring the world. A mentally and creatively drained McLachlan found it difficult to pen her follow- up, Surfacing. So in a last- stitch effort to help her get past the proverbial writer’s block, longtime manager Terry McBride suggested she do a few shows for a few weeks in the summer. McLachlan agreed on one condition: she got to perform with fellow female artists. In 1996, Paula Cole, Lisa Loeb, Suzanne Vega, Patti Smith and Aimee Mann joined McLachlan for what would become a test run of the groundbreaking Lilith Fair. They performed in Burbank, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco with thousands of fans in attendance. Everyone involved agreed there needed to be a sequel.
The following year, the Spice Girls, No Doubt, Celine Dion, Jewel, Toni Braxton, and LeAnn Rimes had six of Billboard’s top ten albums. Shania Twain’s Come on Over became the biggest selling album in country music history, and Missy Elliot became one of the world’s most prolific female rappers with the release of her debut album Supa Dupa Fly. Yet despite the mass appeal and success of female artists, it was unheard of for two women to be featured on a bill. While artists like Pantera, Black Sabbath, and Marilyn Manson took to the main stage at Ozzfest and Prodigy, Tool, and Korn headlined at Lollapalooza, it was virtually inconceivable to imagine that two women could do the same.
Lilith Fair was the all- female antidote to a male dominated music industry. It was an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity among women in entertainment and a necessary call to arms. Nearly 70 female artists toured over 35 cities in the United States and Canada. During the duration of two months- from Salem to Phoenix, Dallas to Toronto- it was the tour heard round the world. Lilith Fair grossed a staggering $16.4 million in its first year and reversed the ancient belief that an all- female line-up was condemned to fail. Not only did Lilith Fair not fail, it reset industry standards and made the impossible possible.
Lilith brought together some of the most influential artists of the past, present, and future. Singer- songwriter Sheryl Crow was fresh off the heels of her success from Tuesday Night Music Club and Sheryl Crow. Both albums were certified multi-platinum and were only the beginning of a career that would span decades.
Rock icon Pat Benatar changed the face of music with her badass persona and hard hitting vocals on hit singles like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Love Is a Battlefield,” and “We Belong.” Tracy Chapman’s soulful, sultry voice was the perfect vehicle for classics like “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason.”
From the edges of Earth to stages across the world, Jewel’s humble beginnings made songs like “Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant for Me,” and “Foolish Games” endearing and unforgettable. Her sound became synonymous with that decade, along with fellow artists and festival performers Paula Cole, Fiona Apple, and Lisa Loeb. Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” helped to define a decade and Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous” was one of the most infectious songs to come out of 1995. Co- founder Sarah McLachlan inevitably got past that pesky writer’s block and finished writing Surfacing that summer of ’97. It would become her best-selling record.
After its debut success, Lilith Fair would go on to tour for two more years. In its first three years, Lilith Fair raised over $10 million for charity and propelled the careers of so many talented, deserving female artists. It was the first of its kind and a testament to the pure magic that can happen when women work together. And it influenced a new tide of women that knew their worth, understood their value, and weren’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers. It was revived again in 2010 but didn’t quite capture the success of its inaugural year.
In an interview with Billboard, McLachlan spoke about being approached to organize another Lilith Fair. “If it were to succeed today it would have to be someone new to carry the torch, a new artist… and it doesn’t have to be called Lilith. It can be someone else. With the Women’s March and Trump in power, everyone is banging on my door, ‘We need to bring this back!’ No, we don’t. But someone of this moment should create something different because this time is very different.”
20 years ago, Lilith Fair broke the rules, pushed the boundaries and influenced a movement. It was ahead of its time yet perfectly present and relevant. 20 years later, only one question remains: who will carry the torch?