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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It was one of the most successful touring festivals of the 1990s, Lilith Fair, a lineup of female solo artists and female-led bands founded by singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan and friends.

Well, Lilith Fair is back this summer for the first time in over a decade, but with flagging ticket sales, the festival is facing harsh criticism, raising the question of whether a women's music festival is necessary today.

Lara Pellegrinelli brings us this report as the first in an ongoing series called Hey Ladies: Being a Woman Musician Today.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: With 13 of its 36 tour dates now canceled, Lilith Fair has been picked on by the press, pummeled by bloggers and pelted by armchair arbiters from message boards to its own Facebook pages. Sarah McLachlan is tired of the attacks.

Ms. SARAH McLACHLAN (Musician): Unfortunately, most of the media seems to just glom onto anything negative. And that's all they want to talk about. And they go searching for it, and we make such a concerted effort every day.

PELLEGRINELLI: McLachlan and Terry McBride, CEO of her record label and management company Nettwerk, are glass-half-full sorts of people.

Mr. TERRY McBRIDE (Chief Executive Officer, Nettwerk): Lilith is not about ticket sales. Lilith is about the experience of Lilith. It's about artists getting together to make this world a better place.

Ms. McLACHLAN: Community, for me. That was the most important thing.

PELLEGRINELLI: For the one and a half million mostly female fans who attended the original, Lilith offered a radically different musical experience from what was available at the time.

It helped open up the field for female performers and raised $10 million for charity. The current clamor threatens to drown out serious discussions about what Lilith's woman-centered vision looks like now and what purpose it might fill for women in music over a decade after the original.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. ANN POWERS (Pop Music Critic, Los Angeles Times): We are in a different time now. 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.

PELLEGRINELLI: Ann Powers is the chief pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times.

According to Billboard magazine, nine of the top 20 music stars in the last decade have been women. Back in the '90s, feminist consciousness looked a little different. There was the underground feminist punk movement called riot grrrl. Alt-rock, neo-soul, hip-hop and country all began opening up to women. Powers says feminist flag-waving is far less fashionable today, and women now are making the most progress in the safest, least politically correct genres.

Ms. POWERS: 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.

PELLEGRINELLI: It's possible not everyone would see it that way.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I can't cook, no, but I can clean up the mess you left. Lay your head down and (unintelligible).

Ms. POWERS: One thing that we've learned since the '90s or I hope that we've learned is that empowerment - to use a loaded term - happens in lots of different ways. And we can always question what this version or this vision of empowerment means, but I think it's really good to expand your idea of what that can be.

PELLEGRINELLI: Kelly Clarkson, along with superstars Rihanna and Norah Jones, were originally scheduled for this year's Lilith. Theyre all off the tour because of the cancellations. With Ke$ha, Corinne Bailey Rae and Martina McBride still on the bill, the festival does seem more mainstream than its indie-minded precursors, and that may have backfired with the tour's ticket-buying community of fans.

Ms. McLACHLAN: You can second-guess yourself on all sorts of levels, but I think the bottom line is we had really strong, diverse lineups. We had really strong, diverse lineups last time, and people had more money to spend.

PELLEGRINELLI: As mixed as the lineups are in terms of genre, some say Lilith is skewed to more conventional notions of femininity.

Ms. TAMAR-KALI (Musician): A woman will always be accepted as a pop princess.

PELLEGRINELLI: Tamar-Kali is an Afro-punk and hardcore singer, songwriter and guitarist, scenes not encompassed by Lilith's version of diversity.

Ms. TAMAR-KALI: I think that we need to see more players, and we need to see women in more genres that are on the - not necessarily the fringes but the outer edges of the spectrum like hard rock.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. TAMAR-KALI: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

PELLEGRINELLI: Tamar-Kali feels the attacks on the festival over canceled shows share something with a hostility toward women's issues in general.

Ms. TAMAR-KALI: Misogyny is definitely raising its ugly head, as well as racism. And it's a really interesting time because you said Rihanna was one of the artists. I mean, this man almost killed her.

PELLEGRINELLI: In February 2009, Rihanna was severely beaten by then-boyfriend Chris Brown during an argument.

Ms. TAMAR-KALI: Whether or not he's sorry, I don't know him. I'm not interested in having that conversation. But I do know that a community missed an opportunity to really deal with misogyny head on. We keep squandering these opportunities to grow and to evolve.

PELLEGRINELLI: For her part, Sarah McLachlan says that Lilith is more of a want than a need this time around.

Ms. McLACHLAN: But there is still a lot to prove. There is still great inequality between men and women in North America.

PELLEGRINELLI: So then what is the role of Lilith, and where does McLachlan see women in music in 2010?

Ms. McLACHLAN: One of my greatest passions is women and children and anybody who, you know, doesn't have their own voice or doesn't know how to reach out and have their own voice.

And, yes, I mean, there's a lot of horrible things going on all over the world, but I think, you know, as individuals, we all have to focus on our own gifts and our own values and bring those forth to the world as best we can.

PELLEGRINELLI: As it's always done, Lilith Fair will contribute a dollar per ticket to local women's charities in each city along the tour. That's a dollar from the $10 lawn seats and a dollar from the $700 VIP tickets.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

NORRIS: Our series, Hey Ladies, Being a Woman Musician Today, began with a questionnaire we distributed at the South by Southwest Music Festival earlier this year. Among other things, we asked: Do you think being a woman and a musician is different from being a man and a musician? Here's singer-songwriter Matty Diaz(ph).

Ms. MATTY DIAZ (Musician): When I get asked that question, I think about it. You know, I think, oh, man, I'm a woman. You know, like, what's going to change for me? But if I'm not thinking about it, if I'm not thinking about being a girl and not thinking about how I'm a girl in music, I'm just a person doing music.

You know, I'm just trying to write music, and I'm trying to hey, it's me. Hey, do you like this? Here, listen to this. That's all that I'm trying to I don't think being a woman has made me struggle personally, I don't think.

NORRIS: Diaz did say there are challenges touring with a band of men.

Ms. DIAZ: It's kind of hard because, you know, like, I have to change with a towel over myself in the van, you know, when all that needs to go down. But, you know, they're my family. You know, so being a girl on the road and a woman in rock really just has to do with I guess my boobs and not so much my attitude.

NORRIS: More than 700 musicians have responded to the questionnaire so far. You can read their responses and learn more at our website, nprmusic.org.

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