For the Second Annual Lilith, ringmaster McLachlan and a slew of new acts add a new twist to the usual fair

Once upon a more militant time, when they held the odd “women’s music” festival, they spelled womyn with a y. No such matriarchal mandate, though, for Lilith Fair, which dares present the peculiarity of an all-female lineup and then ask, Why ask why? Festival founder Sarah McLachlan, 30, is cheerfully short on answers, even on the eve of Lilith’s second coming. The annual outing wasn’t conceived, she says, to prove a point about the commercial firepower of chick singers (though last summer’s $16.5 million gross certainly hammered that home). No sociopolitical banners, either. Getting pop’s most talented frontwomen together—and leaving the men to slave labor—just sounded like…”fun.”

Hell, the Spice Girls have more of an agenda than that. Fancy- and agitprop-free or not, Lilith was at the crux of a cultural revolution last year, giving girl power a grown-up face and the lie to the idea that the public prefers its female singers in novel isolation, not en masse. It didn’t hurt that the vast majority of young white “adult alternative” artists worth giving a hoot about happen these days to be missing a crucial Y chromosome. But if Lilith was almost as definable by genre as gender in ’97, this time McLachlan is mixing it up, adding more hip-hop and alt-rock to the 57-date fest’s ever-morphing lineup and putting newcomers like Erykah Badu, Luscious Jackson, and Lauryn Hill alongside such holdovers as Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and Lisa Loeb.

Homogeneity was hardly on the menu when we solicited a few key divas for an EW roundtable, either. On her new album, Ophelia, and especially its first single, “Kind and Generous,” Natalie Merchant, 34, manages to make every virtue Bill Bennett ever extolled sexy, even a little subversive. Meanwhile, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, reigning queen of hip-hop, made bumpin’ a sport for both sexes on last year’s Supa Dupa Fly. Paula Cole, 30, got smirky for one hit (“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”) but otherwise fervently mines the ideological passion pit. The far droller Liz Phair, 31, was frank about sex and boredom back when Elizabeth Wurtzel was a mere gleam in her publisher’s eye—though, after a long layoff that found her becoming a mother, Phair’s August release, whitechocolatespaceegg, may be shocking for not being so shocking.

So join the girls of summer for as they sit down for a chat with senior writer Chris Willman in advance of the tour’s June 19 kickoff in Portland, Ore., and learn why Sarah has her hand down her Levi’s, which participant is in gravest danger of having nude etchings pop up on the Net, and why Bob Dylan might not be welcome even if he were just like a woman.

EW: There’s no truth to the rumor Ginger Spice quit the band so she could come join up with Lilith Fair, is there?

ALL: [Stunned silence]

McLACHLAN: Uh…It’s the first I’ve heard!

MERCHANT: I had a dream about the Spice Girls last night, and I’ve never even seen or heard them.