Hey Ladies: Being A Woman Musician Today

Setback Or Progress? Ann Powers On The New Lilith Fair

Sarah McLachlan in Central Park

hide captionLilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan at a performance in New York's Central Park earlier this summer.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Ann Powers has declared that feminism is essential to everything she does. Before she became the chief pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times, Powers co-edited Rock She Wrote: Women Writing About Rock, Pop, and Rap, a landmark collection in the history of criticism. Clearly, she stands on the shoulders of women who have come before her, exploring the relationship between gender and pop music as one way to "confront our deepest fears and dearest fantasies about pleasure and freedom." I interviewed Powers for a story about the revamped Lilith Fair that launches NPR's series on women in music in 2010. Here is part of our conversation.

Tell me about the Lilith Fairs of years past. The most important thing that Lilith offered to thousands of women  — and hundreds of men  — was the experience of being at a large event not only dominated by women artists, but, most importantly, women in the crowd. Unless you were into the Michigan Women's Music Festival, a lesbian oriented event, it was just so unusual at that time. Simply offering that to people was revolutionary. It was very freeing, even for someone like me, who had been writing about music for more than a decade.

One of the questions being asked now is, do we still need a women's music festival? I remember going to the first Lilith and, even then, questions were being raised. In the '90s, it was probably more a matter of policing whether or not Sarah [McLachlan] and her partners were doing Lilith right, rather than whether or not it was necessary at all. At the time, there was a lot of thinking about what it meant to be a woman in music and action in terms of trying to reform certain scenes. The one we probably remember the most is Riot Grrrl.

Lilith was perceived by some as being too soft and conforming too much to conventional notions of femininity. But there's something I'd like to say about that. There's a venerable tradition of female singer/songwriters and they were not getting the airplay and mainstream media attention they deserved. When we think our touchstone artists prior to the '90s, it's hard to name five who got the same kind of respect as the male titans: maybe Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon. There was definitely a need to highlight the cornucopia of female talent.

Lilith certainly helped to do that, but how about now? We are in a different time. On the one hand, there are many, many more visible women at the top of the mainstream pop scene. On the other hand, I think it's arguable that there's less consciousness.

To me, this Lilith seems to be following the upward trend of women in pop. The booking strikes me as a bit more mainstream than the original. I like the fact that they have some "mainstream artists." If you've ever been to a Kelly Clarkson concert, I'm sorry, but that is the most feminist thing going right now in pop music. That is a roomful of women and girls screaming at the top of their lungs about being independent. That is what a Kelly Clarkson concert is. One of the things that we've learned since the '90s  — one of the things that I hope we've learned  — is that empowerment, to use a loaded term, happens in lots of different ways. We can always question what this version of empowerment means, but I think it's really good to expand your idea of what that can be.

Seriously, Kelly Clarkson? I love Kelly Clarkson. I don't see anybody on the roster who doesn't express their own idea of female strength, independence, and empowerment through their music. Adding someone like a Kelly or a Rihanna — these are women trying to do something similar with their music to what Sarah does, just in a different context.

Kelly Clarkson

hide captionKelly Clarkson performs at the Hammerstein Ballroom in November, 2009. Clarkson was scheduled to perform at three stops on this year's Lilith tour, but pulled out of the dates earlier this month.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

At the risk of sounding judgmental, maybe listeners feel that some kinds of empowerment are more valid than others. Honey, I gotta buy you a Kelly Clarkson record. Personally, I've realized that the tradition I thought of as too safe, too pretty, and too conventional is the space where women have been able to gain some practical ground. The area of music where we thought the status quo was really being upset  — specifically hard rock  — has actually remained the most male-dominated. When we're talking about the mainstream commercial music world  — which is different than the grassroots, indie world  — the singer/songwriter tradition has been very valuable. Maybe we underestimated it back in the '90s.

Having watched masculine culture enjoy a resurgence around the war and the reactions to Hilary Clinton's presidential bid, I wonder if we're living in a more conservative era now than we were in the '90s when it comes to women's issues in general. We have to be wary of nostalgia for the '90s and  — a term that's been floating around in my circles of friends lately  — "Riot Grrrl nostalgia." Not to at all discount the importance and the joy of that experience — we're just in a different moment now. Boundaries are being broken in different ways.

I think about some of the more rock and indie-oriented acts on Lilith this year: Cat Power, Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds. These are women musicians who are really in charge of their sound and their production. They play instruments. They're doing exactly what it was we wanted in the '90s and doing it in a way that foregrounds their power and identities. They're just not necessarily articulating their politics as openly.

I think sometimes that can be a problem. We have to remember and always reiterate our values, to say it right out: "I am a feminist." Right now, it's not very fashionable. I look at the younger generation of women coming up in their twenties and, for whatever reason, they don't feel like they always have to say those words. We have to ask ourselves why younger women don't feel the need to be right up front with their politics. Is that going to set us back or is that itself a sign of progress? I don't know the answer.

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