Woman of the Year

Sarah McLachlan

Concert promoters said it couldn't be done. But Sarah McLachlan's sold-out Lilith Fair tour proved an all-female bill could draw fans. In the process, she inspired a new generation of women to take their rightful place at Centre stage. By Kim Pittaway

The crowd is restless. They've cheered on the triumphant recovery anthems of Shawn Colvin, stamped and danced to the rocking folk of the Indigo Girls and listened raptly as Jewel's almost childlike voice negotiated her oh-so-adult lyrics.They've checked out the booths selling eco-friendly hemp clothing, funky jewelery, backpacks and, of course, concert t-shirts. And while the ground is damp -- the skies opened up early in the afternoon program - spirits aren't. Anticipation wafts like pheromones on the Lake Ontario breeze as the August night air cools. They''re waiting for Sarah.

The lights go down. Twenty-two thousand concertgoers stand up. And Sarah Mclachlan strides onstage. Framed by banners depicting Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam who was kicked out of Eden for not being subservient enough, and backed by her husband/drummer Ashwin Sood and band, McLachlan launches into a set that is by turns poignant, longing, sensual - and always confident.

Don't know who Mclachlan is? Ask any teenage girl. Until last summer, she was best known as a gifted Canadian singer and songwriter with hits such as Good Enough "Possession'' and "I Will Remember You.'' In 1997, she added role model to her credits, repeating that crowd-pleasing scene 37 times on a seven-week North American tour that saw her Lilith Fair -- the first-ever mainstream all-female music festival -- become the season's hottest ticket and highest grosser, at $18 million.

Lilith Fair was McLachlan's idea: when promoters grumbled about her choice of a female opening act, saying fans wouldn't pay to see two women on the same stage, she decided to launch an all-female festival to show them just how wrong they were. Together with her record company, British Columbia's Nettwerk Management (whose staff she credited repeatedly with doing the hard work of pulling off the tour), she put together a lineup with close to a dozen women on each bill, more than 80 women artists on the entire tour. McLachlan was the linchpin, the only constant in a rotting lineup that included Tracy Chapman, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Jewel, the Indigo Girls and dozens of other female-fronted bands. (A friend came up with the Lilith moniker; the press dubbed it Estro-fest and Girlie-palooza, in contrast to the almost all-male Lollapalooza.)

"The Gals Take Over,'' headlined Time magazine's cover story on Lilith Fair. "Front and centre stage,'' trumpeted Maclean's. Ixnay on the Hombres,'' declared Entertainment Weekly. Contrary to that last headline's suggestion, though, McLachlan didn t outlaw penis-carriers older than 5 from the concert site, as some all-female concerts have (though in the audience, gals outnumbered guys by a wide margin). She didn't recast "women'' as woman or wimmin. And while a percentage of the $50 ticket price went to good causes, some of them specifically geared to women, the word "feminist'' wasn't front and centre either. What was front and centre was a sense of entitlement to equal time onstage, a sense of fun in the moment and a sense that you don't need to exclude the guys entirely in order to include the gals.

While the crowds cut across age groups, the teens and 20-somethings cheered the loudest, as a proud stream of female musicians strolled onstage to perform their own words in songs that covered an emotional range from longing to aggression, from despair to straight-ahead hooting fun, from "I love you'' to ("Get the hell out.'' The tickets sold out as fast as young women could speed-dial Tickemaster.

But it's not ticket sales that make McLachlan Chatelaine's Woman of the Year. lf's not simple musical talent either (a1though that did merit a November 1996 profile in the magazine). Mclachlan makes a powerful connection with her fans, especially young women: she's a lot like them, from the self-conscious adolescence to the big dreams. McLachlan's tour succeeded because through it she shouted what many women, young and old, still whisper: waddya mean we can't do what the guys can? She may not have intended it, but her actions have made her a symbol beyond the music world, a symbol of confidence in taking centre stage.

lt's a sentiment that resonates most powerfully with young women: these are girls who've grown up assuming women could be Supreme Court judges and astronauts and prime ministers. But at the same time, they know we're not in equality Eden yet. After all, it took until 1997 for an all-female lineup of this scope to hit the stage. And being a teenage girl can still -- to echo a teen-favored phrase -- really suck. It did for McLachlan: "I hated high school,'' she told me when I interviewed her for Chatelaine in 1996. "I hated being there. I hated the energy. It was awful.'' In junior high, guys nicknamed her Medusa (yes: she of the snaky hair), and her parents didn't exactly support her musical aspirations. Ask the teenage girls in your life if this sounds familiar.

And while a concert tour won't magically bestow self-esteem on every teenage girl, it does make a difference. It expands the realm of the possible. It celebrates being female. And it's a whole lot of fun. ('You know, a promoter once told me people wouldn't pay to see more than one woman at a concert,'' McLachlan tells her Lilith Fair crowd between songs. With a musician's sense of timing, she pauses for a beat. I told him, f--- you.'' Twenty-two thousand fans-women and men-roar their approval.

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