Femme fests

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As the sun sets on Lilith Fair’s final tour and the commercial stock of estro-friendly music continues to rise, sexpert Susie Bright’s ruminations on Lilith’s origin and family tree seem all the more telling.

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 (men are admitted to Lilith 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 such as Jewel and Paula Cole, but the actual veterans of the lesbian music circuit, including the Indigo Girls 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 Pepsification of yet another grassroots movement?

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