This summer female pop stars are clearing out space for themselves, and the season's usual sea of masculinity is parting. The debut CD by Alaskan pop-folkie Jewel, Pieces of You (Atlantic), has sold more than 5 million copies and is still riding high on the charts. Erykah Badu, with her poetry-slam soulfulness, has sold more than 1 million copies of her brilliant new CD Baduizm (Kedar Entertainment/Universal) and is a headliner on this summer's neo-soul Smokin' Grooves Tour. And Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan has masterminded the summer's most talked-about musical event: Lilith Fair, a traveling show featuring a rotating lineup of 61 female singer-songwriters, including Cassandra Wilson, Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Jewel and McLachlan herself. There's a different melody in the air: macho is out; empathy is in. "People want to be given hope," says Atlantic Records senior vice president Ron Shapiro, "and these female artists are giving young people a life preserver."
Call the new sound coffeehouse pop. It has a comforting warmth, a topping of sugary froth, and it provides a kind of buzz, like sipping a cappuccino in a corner cafe. It is led, mostly, by female singer-songwriters, writing primarily from a feminist point of view. On her hit song Bitch, Meredith Brooks declares that she wants to "reclaim a word that had taken on a really derogatory meaning." But ideology or no, these women are unafraid to celebrate their own sensuality. On the inside flap of her album, Jewel poses in a sexy yellow swimsuit.
This new music has the vigor of youth--McLachlan is 29, Jewel just 23--and yet it echoes with sounds of three decades past: the crisp emotionality of Joni Mitchell, the artful lyrics of Bob Dylan. While rooted in acoustic folk, it draws freely on blues, jazz and even hip-hop. "There's no such thing necessarily as a folk song or pop song," says jazz singer Wilson. "What it is is not as important as how you do it, and how you do it is not as important as why."
Coffeehouse pop is gentle but not tame--there is a quiescent anger within it over social issues and matters of the heart. The songs seek to engage life, not shrink from it. "There was an innocence that prevailed in the '60s that was crushed by the assassination of J.F.K. and King," says Jewel. "Our parents have become disillusioned. It is their disillusionment we deal with in many ways; it's a kind of crust we have to break through." In the title song on Pieces of You, Jewel attacks religious and sexual intolerance, her voice breaking as she sings, "You say he's a faggot. Are you afraid you're just the same?"; one of Chapman's newest songs is titled The Rape of the World.
But unlike alternative rock, this music is less about stoking cynicism and provoking anger than it is about overcoming both. This is healing music, devoid of irony and flush with optimism and unabashed emotion. "Apathy is boring," says Cole. "It takes real courage to have hope." This is music that wants to feel, no matter how much it hurts. Says Jewel: "People are hungry for emotiveness. They want bare honesty, emotional blood-and-bone honesty."
The Lilith Fair, which kicked off July 5 in George, Wash., and will play 29 more cities in the U.S. and Canada over the next two months, is a coming-out party for the new sound, a chance for this generation of female singer-songwriters to meet and greet each other, jam onstage together, share audiences and, perhaps, start a folk-pop revolution. It should be noted, though, that some of the recent talk about a surge in "women's music" could be seen as a veiled slur. The music women make is too varied for a single category, and the mediagenic notion of some sort of "female sound" could turn into a kind of velvet prison. Women, of course, have been major players in music throughout the rock era, so the idea that gals with guitars is something new is an insult to such folk-pop pioneers as Odetta and Joan Baez. The number of women at the top of the charts of late, however, and the impressive number of those who are playing Lilith is indeed something fresh and invigorating. "Of all the tours that you do during the summer," says Fiona Apple, "this is pretty much the coolest one."
The opening show in George's scenic Gorge Amphitheater was proof of that. It was an intimate extravaganza--with condom giveaways and information booths on issues like rape and reproductive rights--and the performances began with a hush and built to a dreamy sigh. Lilith offers the audience three stages, in separate locations, of gradually descending size and occupied by performers at staggered time intervals. McLachlan was the first act up, playing a spare, unassuming set by herself, holding only her acoustic guitar, on the third and smallest stage, which was about the size of a tollbooth. Cassandra Wilson, on the medium-size second stage later in the day, was the Fair's most disarming delight--her smart, laughing, 30-minute set began with a few dozen people watching but ended with several hundred, who gave her a standing ovation. Jewel, on the first and largest stage, was the high point. On record, her voice sometimes has a tepid blond wispiness; in concert, it has a crackling, sparks-flying, campfire warmth. Finally McLachlan, with her full band, appeared on the first stage to close out the day with a serene set that shimmered like twilight.
How does that Joni Mitchell song go? "I've looked at life from both sides now..." McLachlan has certainly seen both sides in the music business. As the Founding Mother of Lilith--and the only performer playing every date--she is sure to win a wide new audience for her lush, thoughtful songcraft. Her new CD, Surfacing (Arista), out this week, is an elegant, old-soul album, with several standout songs, including the bewitching Building a Mystery and the ravishing Adia. Radio is already all over it. But not too long ago, McLachlan couldn't buy airplay. "When my album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy came out [in 1994], a lot of radio stations said they couldn't play me because they already had another singer-songwriter on their playlist," McLachlan says. "In this case it was Tori Amos. That was very marginalizing because our music is completely different. They were saying, 'Go away--we've added our token female this week.'"
Then Alanis Morissette hit. Fifteen million copies sold. Next came Jewel. More than 70 weeks on the Billboard charts and still going. And McLachlan's own album Fumbling ended up going double platinum. Says Atlantic Records co-chairman Val Azzoli: "Honestly, we in the record business are not leaders. We are a bunch of sheep. When one kind of record does well, we all follow with more like it."
Danny Goldberg, the current CEO of Mercury Records, who signed Jewel to Atlantic before leaving that label, says there's a major musical shift under way. "I associate it with generations of high school students coming along who want ownership of their own culture, who want something different from the people who came before them," says Goldberg, who in the past managed Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. "So this group is going for a female-leaning, optimistic music, in contrast to the grunge, gangsta-rap chapter that is waning."
The rise of Jewel and other female singer-songwriters has come hand in hand with the growth of a whole new generation-spanning radio format known in the music industry as "modern adult contemporary." Modern AC focuses on acts that are adult friendly but still cool, performers with a folkie feel, such as Counting Crows, Blues Traveler, Sister Hazel and the Wallflowers. The format also tends to feature female singer-songwriters such as Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and Jewel--all of whom just happen to be on the Lilith tour. "The blossoming of modern AC was so important," says Terry McBride, who manages McLachlan. "Artists like Sarah, Fiona [Apple] and Jewel have always been at the bottom of [radio] playlists, but about 14 months ago, we started getting some attention. It helped us get the exposure we needed to be able to put on a Lilith. It's helped all these artists get to the next step up."
The format has a special appeal to female listeners: it allows them to hear someone like themselves instead of, say, someone like Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. And record companies like it because women tend to buy more records than men. "Years ago, there used to be a stigma held by rock-radio programmers against playing too many female artists," says Bob Waugh, assistant programming director at modern-rock radio station WHFS in Washington. "Now there has been such an explosion of female artists and female-led bands coming to prominence that the perception has changed."
And Lilith Fair should change it even more. McLachlan, in conceiving the event, drew inspiration from the proto-feminist Hebrew legend of Lilith, Adam's first wife. Unlike Eve, Lilith was not spawned from Adam's rib but was created by God out of dust, just as Adam was. But as soon as Lilith and Adam were joined together, they began to quarrel. Adam said: "It is your duty to obey me." Lilith replied, "We are both equal...and I will not be submissive to you." Set that last quote to music, and you'd have a fitting anthem for Lilith Fair.
McLachlan tried out the concept of an all-female tour on four test dates last year, expanding the idea this summer. "There wasn't necessarily a theme we were looking for, but we all wanted a diverse show," she says. "So [this year] we made sure to get people like Cassandra Wilson, who is totally doing her own thing with jazz and folk."
Wilson is happy to be involved. "The vibe that I bring to this is the voice of free black women," she says. "Black women who are confident, sure of themselves in their sexuality, confident in their spirituality." Yet more black artists deserve to be on Lilith's bill. Lilith organizers say they tried to reach out; Erykah Badu was offered a slot on the tour but turned it down. On the other hand, Laura Love, a black, folk-tinged, Seattle-based singer-songwriter with a fine new album, Octoroon, asked to be part of Lilith and was passed over (the organizers say that with 584 submissions, they couldn't take everybody).
Still, Lilith is a welcome development. Right now, pop music is flaccid. The prefab hype of Spice Girls, the sugar-shock kiddie ditties of Hanson, the admirable wholesomeness but inexcusable tiresomeness of Bob Carlisle, the horrific power screeching of Celine Dion--turn it off. Turn it all off. It's meaningless olestra music, artificial and nutrient-free.
The Lilith tour and the coffeehouse-pop crowd can help halt pop's garbage-chute slide. Such music, on the surface, is gentle enough to slip onto radio playlists, but down deep there are ideas, there is emotion, there is life: the haunting, melancholic feel of McLachlan's new tune Angel; Fiona Apple exploring her post-rape trauma on her heart-rending Sullen Girl; Erykah Badu imagining the life of a gangsta's girlfriend on her soulful Otherside of the Game. Other promising acts from this school are on the way. An advance copy of British trip-hop folkie Pauline Taylor's just-finished album indicates she is a blazing talent; Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Kacy Crowley is another one to watch, judging by an early listen to her confident debut, Anchorless; and Chantal Kreviazuk's just-out Under These Rocks and Stones is also a charmer.
Perhaps someday we'll see Taylor, Crowley or Kreviazuk at Lilith. McLachlan wants the tour to become an annual event; she even foresees a day when men are invited. (One of this year's bands, the Cardigans, has men, but the lead singer is a woman.) Says McLachlan: "We hope this will pave the way for more female performers. We hope it's a great thing for young women too. When I was growing up, we had very few role models to look up to. This is a great example of strong women out there doing something they love, doing something really positive."
Lilith Fair is already doing something positive for the summer concert business, which was in the doldrums. Tickets for Lilith, which cost between $12.50 and $46, are going fast in most of the remaining cities and in some cases are already gone. The first week of shows were all sellouts.
What was that line Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own? "I should remind you how much depends on you, and what an influence you can exert upon the future." At Lilith you can sense the summer shifting, the musical center moving. Said 18-year-old fairgoer Cindy Chen of Seattle: "I don't like [alternative rock]. Too much moshing and men throwing themselves around. It's dangerous."
Lilith, at the show in George, proved to be a safe, sacred spot. Here were teenage girls in cutoff jeans and bikini tops, middle-aged moms in baggy T shirts and running shoes. Here a woman breast-fed her baby during Jewel's set; here fans sat dead-quiet, listening to the lyrics. Here a woman wore a T shirt marked "dyke" with a parodic Nike swoosh, while two other women walked comfortably hand in hand. Here a man in a concession-stand line talked excitedly about Sarah McLachlan's songwriting skills. Said Shellie Knawa, 30, a Seattle computer-manual writer: "This is finally a chance for our voice, women, to be heard." It's still summer. But the season's a-changin'.