Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino Says If Lilith Fair Happened Today, Men Should Be Involved Too
Before there was Gaga or Taylor, before pussy hats or Beyoncé’s “girls in formation,” there was an epic all-female music festival created by women fed up with sexism in the music industry: Lilith Fair. This summer, in honor of the festival’s twentieth anniversary, we’re exploring the history and legacy of the festival, and why the fight for equality in the industry continues today. Read the oral history of Lilith—as told by the women who lived it—and more here.
Ever since indie rock duo Best Coast released its debut album, Crazy for You, in 2010, singer Bethany Cosentino has used her songwriting to cope with anxiety, loneliness, and heartbreak. But she’s also applied that openness and self-awareness beyond her music: When she’s not writing songs, Cosentino is using her platform as an artist to post about calling your reps in support of human rights, advocating for Planned Parenthood (she even organized an all-female PP benefit called Don’t Sit Down), and speaking out against sexual assault in the music industry—a spirit that would have fit right in with Lilith Fair’s roots. “It feels strange that [Lilith Fair] was 20 years ago because it also feels like something we should be having now,” Cosentino tells us.
So, ahead of the festival’s twentieth anniversary, we talked to Cosentino about how Lilith Fair was weaved into her upbringing, what changes would need to be made for a successful female music festival today, and empowering the music community.
Glamour: When you first heard about Lilith Fair, what did you think about it?
Bethany Cosentino: I remember hearing about it through my mom because she loved Sarah McLachlan and The Dixie Chicks; she was a big fan of female musicians of that era. I remember always listening to that sort of music with her. It was a big part of our Saturday mornings while I helped her clean the house. At the time I didn’t quite understand why it was important to have a festival that was solely women. I was just like, “Oh, cool, it’s like a girl fest.” In my mind, as a 10-year-old, I wasn’t thinking that this was an important thing for them to have or how intense it was to actually think of the concept of a “female-only festival.” I just didn’t understand the politics behind it back then.
Glamour: Now, as a 30-year-old woman who is a successful touring musician, what do you think about it? How was it ahead of its time? And how do you think it will be remembered?
BC: I think the moment in music that we’re at now—with so many of the top hits on Billboard are [women]—it feels like girls are really taking over. It’s interesting that it’s falling around the same time as the twentieth anniversary of something like Lilith Fair because I remember back then there were so many female pop stars, but in this singer-songwriter-style way, who really spoke about intense feelings. These women, like The Dixie Chicks, Sarah McLachlan, and Joan Osborne, were writing songs about deeper things. I think it was ahead of its time in the sense that it was providing women with deeper, more profound artistry. There was a whole lot of that feeling of women taking control of themselves and their bodies and their own politics and their own thoughts and ideas and bringing it into this communal space. It feels strange that [Lilith Fair] was 20 years ago because it also feels like something we should be having now. I think we wouldn’t have so many of these amazing, strong, empowered female artists that we have today without having some of those women that came out of that whole Lilith Fair scene back in the day.
Glamour: If Lilith Fair were to happen again today, how do you think it can improve? What should it do differently?
BC: If a festival with the capacity and scale of Lilith Fair was to happen now, I would love for it to be super inclusive. I remember it was a lot of white women. Now we live in a world where so much is being thrown at us on a daily basis. We think and choose the words we say and the things we do and the people we surround ourselves with very carefully, so I think if that was something that they’d want to return to, or even a festival that’s sort of based off of Lilith Fair, it [should be] very inclusive. [It should] include transgender women. I remember that one festival happened recently where the lineup came out and people were like, “There’s not a single person of color on this.” People will call you out now. Also, maybe involve men in some way because feminism is about equality.
Glamour: Is it still hard for women to headline at festivals? Is it just festivals that are the problem or is it the whole industry?
BC: Honestly, I don’t think it’s festivals. I do feel like it’s kind of the [music] industry, but there’s so much else that goes into festival planning. At the end of the day, it’s a business. They want to be able to make the money back they put into these festivals. Sometimes they have to go after headliners or involve people in festivals who don’t ask for as much money as other artists. Sometimes people just make stupid decisions for the betterment of their business. I don’t agree with it, but I also understand that when you look at a lineup and you see Beyoncé at the top, and then it trickles down to all of these other bands that you’re like, “Who even are these bands?” It’s because they spent all their money on Beyoncé, you know? I can’t really point a finger and blame an industry, per se, for the entirety of it. But I don’t feel like it’s as bad as, let’s say, Woodstock ’99 or something where you didn’t see a single woman involved.
Glamour: In your Lenny Letter piece you mentioned that sometimes sound guys at venues don’t believe you play guitar simply because you’re a woman. Can you tell me about a specific time that happened or any other personal stories like that where you experienced sexism directly?
BC: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody speak down to me because they just assume I’m really young. Not only just the woman, but also the ageism thing too, where it’s like, “Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just some young girl.” I’m not some virtuoso of guitar or sound tech, but I know enough to know I shouldn’t have someone roll their eyes at me because I asked where the plug on a stage I’ve never been on is. I don’t see him doing that to my bandmate asking the same question. I’ve never really had anybody specifically come up to me and do something really crazy and wild and super sexist, but I have experienced a lot of those little things that hurt. It sucks to feel like a monitor guy is giving you attitude because he thinks you’re just some dumb girl who doesn’t know what she’s doing.
Glamour: You once called out a review for being sexist because the writer was just talking about the way you looked and complained you didn’t smile enough. How did you feel after that happened?
BC: For me, it was a really big, exciting time in my career. And I won’t lie, it was nice to see people complimenting me, but to have it written in a review and be the opening part of a review and be like, “Bethany walked out onstage, and the crowd swooned at her beauty.” It’s like, thank you, that’s nice. However, it then turns into, “But if only she sounded as good as she looked.” It went on to basically say the show was mediocre, subpar—we sounded really good, but it was just kind of lackluster because I wasn’t smiling and didn’t seem engaged. That was frustrating for me because that felt like an attack on me solely based on my gender. Nobody said anything about how Bob didn’t smile or Brett, my bass player, didn’t smile. It blew my mind because I don’t understand why people still don’t see that separation between artist and actual human being.
Glamour: In your own words, what happened when you accused publicist Heathcliff Berru of sexual misconduct? You got a lot of reactions, both positive and negative. Has it affected your career in the short or long term?
BC: I don’t feel like I have a whole lot to say about it anymore other than the problem exists and there are definitely more people out there like him, and they are not just in the music industry. Our president so happens to be one of them. It’s obviously a major issue. I didn’t really experience any negativity from that. I am so used to speaking my mind on issues and having people attack me and say, “Stick to music or whatever,” but nobody said that to me during that situation at all. I think that in the long term speaking out on that subject and becoming a voice for this idea of sexism in the industry really helped my career because I think it made people look at me differently. It made people think, She’s not just the girl who likes cats, weed, and all of these dumb things. People just assume that’s me because it was me when I was 22, when I started this band. I think it allowed people to look at me and think, This is a strong, empowered woman who isn’t going to stand up for this kind of bullshit. She’s prepared to not just defend herself but her peers and people who need that defense. I backed up Amber [Coffman] because I knew her story, I knew my own story, and I knew so many women’s stories pertaining to [Heathcliff]. The next day I woke up and it was a breaking story. I didn’t plan for that. I never tried to use it to gain notoriety or longevity. I was just trying to back up someone who seemed like she might need back up, someone who seemed like she wanted to air her grievances. As awful as that situation was—and as traumatizing as it was to go through and to relive all of these other women’s memories and experiences—it was a really good thing that it came out. I feel very proud I was involved in it.