Jon Caramanica opens his recent New York Times piece on the changing landscape of "girl pop" with something Lady Gaga yelled during her recent run at Madison Square Garden:
"I hate the truth!"
What a poetic opening to such a oddly-framed article. Caramanica muses on the rise of Lady Gaga and the waning influence of Lilith Fair-style music, noting that the theatrics and "Halloween-costume empowerment" of Gaga and her followers is obviously a direct influence on the poor ticket sales of the Lilith Fair, back this summer for the first time since 1999.
Riding on the first wave of 1990's nostalgia, the Lilith Fair came back in a year where the polar opposite of the folk rock of Sarah McLachlan and company tops the chart. That doesn't show the whole picture, though; this year, while certainly the quiet folk music reigns the festival, performers like Loretta Lynn, Ke$ha, Heart, and Selena Gomez pepper the bill in selected cities.
The lineup, in theory, is supposed to be uniform only insofar as the performers are women. The lineup for many of the dates, though, as WNYC's Maura Johnson said in Sara Stewart's New York Post article on the Lilith Fair, was far from diverse. Much of this has to do with the fact that many of the tour's bigger names, like Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Carly Simon, and the Go-Go's dropped out due to the poor ticket sales, canceled dates, downsized venues, and a broken foot. The Lilith Fair just isn't working this summer.
Does this have to do with the nature of the festival—artists linked together because of their common gender? Certainly, though, concert ticket sales have been soft this summer due to the recession and the outrageously expensive ticket prices—at the Lilith Fair VIP tickets fetch up to $750. Even without the gendered connotation of the event, the festival would have likely suffered. But, in the scores of news articles about the failure of the Lilith Fair, its failure is framed directly around the "gender issue." The Lilith Fair failed because Lady Gaga and her disciples took their place as the hottest women in the landscape of popular music. Caramanica muses about what the Lady Gaga aesthetic represents:
"New feminism is more about the opportunity to make choices than about any specific choice itself. And it's freeing, this expansion of musical liberation into spaces visual as well as sonic, instinctual as well as intellectual, performed as well as lived."
In contrast, Caramanica continues, the Lilith Fair aesthetic "trafficked in a very specific brand of feminism: organic, direct, unadorned, intimate."
The point that Caramanica and the New York Post's Sara Stewart seem to be getting at, though, is that the Lilith Fair cannot be popular because Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift are popular. Popular culture isn't interested in granola feminism, but in post-postmodern feminism. Stewart, for instance, writes that,
"But crunchy, sincere folk rock isn't really the thing these days, and the mission of the original tour feels slightly stale. With artists like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift more than holding their own in ticket and record sales, the motivation for an all-woman tour has changed. "Maybe with Lilith, there's not so much of a need [now]. It's more of a want," McLachlan admitted to the LA Times."
In a way, the argument that folk rock isn't all that cool right now seems fair: What's popular in, well, popular music changes drastically in a relatively short window of time. It's not so much of a stretch to say that the "crunchy, sincere folk rock" doesn't translate as well or draw big crowds more than a decade after the height of its popularity.
But why is it that they're only pitting female artists against female artists? Why is it that because Lady Gaga is popular, Sarah McLachlan can't be? Certainly, a slew of more recent female artists have garnered legions of fans in the decade since the first run of Lilith Fair, but what about singers like Brandy, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Lauryn Hill, who were arguably more popular than Lilith Fair artists in the late 1990s? If anything, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift have these artists to thank for their current success.
If commercial pop stars can sell out arenas today, it's not at the expense of the Lilith Fair. Ultimately, the Lilith Fair failed because of the economy and poor planning, not because Lady Gaga's brand of feminism conquered it.
In the meantime, I'll be waiting for the piece about how Limp Bizkit's canceled concerts have to do with the surmounting success of Ringo Starr's summer tour.