In the 1960s, rock festivals such as Woodstock were seen as the culmination of rock and Altamont as the ending of the hippie culture. In the 1990s, two alternative music festivals were the launchings of the alt-culture of the decade: Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair.
Lollapalooza, meaning “an extraordinary or unusual thing or event,” was as impactful in raising awareness of alternative rock and grunge as any artist of the decade.
Founded in 1990 by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, this new concept was to create an ensemble tour – with several bands traveling to a series of venues throughout North America. Primarily recruiting alt-rock/grunge bands, the 1991 inaugural tour of Lollapalooza had seven bands, including Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Butthole Surfers, and rapper Ice-T with his thrash metal band, Body Count.
The Lollapalooza launch covered 21 cities in North America during the summer of 1991, played to over 430,000 people, and grossed over $10 million. Though primarily a stylistic nod to the post-punk, early grunge sounds, the concert tour also featured Ice T’s rapping, Body Count’s metal set, and Nine Inch Nails industrial rock. The diverse elements of Farrell’s band, Jane’s Addiction, drew from rock, country, folk, punk, Latin, and even Arabic music. Non-conformist and anti-mainstream, Lollapalooza 1991 was the perfect launching of the alternative movement.
By the following year, Lollapalooza ’92 had not only grown from 21 to 36 cities but had increased its total audience to over 800,000 and almost doubled its gross income to nearly $19 million. Accompanying the alternative culture of music was a phalanx of socially active non-musical participants: PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Greenpeace (climate change awareness), ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition or Unleash Power), Rock the Vote (voter registration), the Cannabis Action Network, the Coalition for the Homeless, and other anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-racism groups had joined the traveling caravan. The ’92 Lollapalooza now included Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and others. The “alternative” sounds were quickly becoming mainstream on the charts and in America’s cultural consciousness. Like the ’50s sound of Presley, Berry, Holly, and Little Richard, it could no longer be ignored or minimized. The Lollapalooza tours packaged the protest messages of early ’60s Greenwich Village coffee houses into radical sounds and part of a new counterculture cavalcade.
By the mid-’90s, almost every alt-artist who had achieved any status had played an iteration of Lollapalooza. However, by the late ’90s, what had started as a counterculture celebration had settled into a middle-aged complacency that would ultimately doom its innovative spirit. Nevertheless, for a few years, the alt musical movement was given an annual stage that matched its uniqueness in both spirit and structure.
As crucial as Lollapalooza was to mainstream the alt-music culture, Lilith Fair brought a new and essential focus on female artists and bands.
The festival’s name was taken from Jewish mythology, which holds that Adam’s first wife, Lilith, who was created from the same clay as her male counterpart, but refused to be subservient to him and chose to leave the Garden of Eden.
While Sarah McLachlan established herself as an essential voice in the alt-movement of women’s pop-rock of the ’90s, her decision to produce the Lilith Fair music events was as significant. In the summer of 1997, McLachlan brought together some of the most notable female artists for a traveling concert tour and festival. Like the male-dominated Lollapalooza festivals of the decade, Lilith Fair was a series of traveling concerts. The first Lilith Fair festival was a series of thirty-seven dates that began in the Pacific Northwest, moved through the Southwest, Midwest, South, Northeast, and finished by moving across Canada to finish in McLachlan’s home of Vancouver, British Columbia. With three stages at the events, mainstage artists such as Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Fiona Apple, Natalie Merchant, Lisa Loeb, the Indigo Girls, and India Arie brought a wide range of musical styles to the events. Though well over eighty female artists would appear over the summer, only McLachlan and Suzanne Vega would appear at all the dates.
The following year Lilith Fair expanded to fifty-seven dates, expanding the venues to every part of the United States and Canada. Many of the previous year’s mainstage artists returned and were joined by others, such as Bonnie Raitt, Queen Latifah, Liz Phair, Diana Krall, and Erykah Badu. Throughout the summer, well over one hundred female artists performed on the stages, including a young Broadway novice named Idina Mentzel, fresh off her debut in the musical Rent.
Because Sarah McLachlan predetermined that Lilith Fair would be limited to a three-year run, the 1999 iteration would be its final tour. However, trimmed back to forty dates, the list of artists appearing was expanded from the previous years. At one venue or another, almost 120 female artists or bands appeared on the three stages of the traveling festival.
Lilith Fair brought a wide range of female artists to audiences throughout the United States and Canada through its three-year existence. As much as her recordings impacted the charts, the festival created and produced by McLachlan from 1997 to 1999 raised the visibility and the commercial viability of women in popular music. Over the run of 134 dates (Sarah McLachlan was the only artist to appear on stage for all of them), over 300 women artists were featured. The total audience was estimated to be over 1.5 million, and over $10 million was raised for women’s charities. It was a stark contrast to the male-dominated Lollapalooza festivals.
Though a Lilith Fair revival tour was planned and launched in the summer of 2010, due to poor ticket sales, many of the concert dates were canceled and others moved to smaller venues to accommodate smaller crowds.
Just as the major rock festivals in the 1960s – Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont – can be seen as a snapshot of the culture and the music of the decade, so were Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair to many of those essential artists in the alt- movements of the 1990s.