by Lauren Maas. Here is her website.
I moved to Doha, Qatar in 2009 to teach English at the branch campus of an American art and design school. As one might expect from any fourteen-hour-by-plane relocation, life, as I knew it, was quickly shaken up. And for the most part, this shake-up was for the better: I went from adjunct teaching and barely being able to pay my utility bills to living in an apartment with a 180-degree view of the Arabian Gulf. I flew business class for the first time and worked with interesting people from all over the world. I traveled to truly exotic places, like Oman, a country where an actual sultan rules. So many exciting things happened to me as a result of this great job fortune, I cannot recount them all here.
Before I moved to Doha, I was a freelance columnist for a now-defunct online music magazine called Jamsbio. That job didn’t pay much, but it enabled me to download lots of music for free. That was amazing. My editor assigned me mostly new rock—I reviewed Deerhoof and Jenny Lewis. At the time, I was also listening to a lot of vinyl because, like any good American post-graduate, in my infinite wisdom and poverty, I decided to spend what little money I had on records. In the summer of 2009, I was really enjoying Neil Diamond’s live double album, Hot August Nights. And Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. And The National, because I was down on my luck in love.
In short, I was not really seeking out the kind of music you’d hear in ‘da club.
In fact, prior to my Doha departure, it had been a while since I had set foot in a club (in the traditional sense anyway) at all—the last time being my freshman year in college, when my friends and I would head to Club Tango, the only place in Charleston that turned a blind eye to underage patrons as long as it was Thursday and they happened to be girls in short skirts. Man, that place was gross. Guys inside wore silken shirts, and the deejay played Sisqo’s “Thong Song” remixed a million different (yet very similar) ways. I don’t know what we were thinking. In retrospect, being eighteen doesn’t seem like enough of an excuse.
So imagine my surprise to find myself now, at over a decade remove, electing to tune into local 96.7 Kiss FM while driving around my new home of Austin, TX. I cannot help myself. I am a changed woman. I need my Top 40 hits. Here’s how it happened:
In Doha, hotel culture reigns supreme. Since it is a dry Muslim country, you are only allowed to drink in public at hotel bars and restaurants. The powers-that-be consider these areas ‘international zones’, and therefore outside of sharia’s jurisdiction. Plus, it would be hard to lure any tourist or expat to the region without these watering holes. But they are incredibly expensive—charging close to twenty dollars for a beer, and thirty to forty for a cocktail, and you often need a membership card to get inside. A certain amount of economic, sexual, and racial discrimination goes into the application / approval process, but this is somehow offset by the fact that no Qataris are allowed into the clubs either. So what remains are patrons of a very specific pedigree—super-rich kids. The nearest hotel to my apartment was the W, and of all of the bars and restaurants in the city, its second-floor Crystal Lounge remains fixed in my mind as the most representative of international club culture—a place where ambassadors’ daughters and executives’ sons could get loaded on Red Bull and top shelf vodka, then dance the night away.
During my first year in Doha (I stayed for four) I found this subculture of the city to be equal parts abhorrent and fascinating. I could not afford, financially or psychically, to frequent clubs like the Crystal Lounge or the Sky Bar on the regular, but when I did step into this world, I always left feeling as if I’d learned something—it was a much more compelling scene than the Club Tango of my youth, which was mostly driven by American-made boredom and sleaze. Here, I felt like a Jane Goodall for the jetset. I tracked fashions and themes. For example, accents were all shades of post-colonial and songs were always about the world ending. The strobes were blue, surfaces reflective—if you drank enough, it was like being in a rave on a lower deck of the Titanic, still sinking, a hundred years later.
A significant percentage of the soundtrack at any of these establishments belonged to Rihanna. With her Barbadian accent and elaborate Instagram shoots in exotic locales, Rihanna remains the high priestess of the jetset. The girls at the Crystal Lounge could literally “shine bright like diamond[s]”, because their parents bought them engagement rings as birthday presents. She got me, too—the song I most associate with my time overseas is her “We Found Love.” Embarrassing as it is to admit, hearing it on the radio now can bring tears to my eyes and chills to my arms, it makes me so homesick for Qatar. Doubtless, this is in part due to its composition (those Calvin Harris dance riffs are very manipulative,) but it is also because Qatar often seemed very much like the “hopeless place” referenced again and again and again in the song. Any place where some people can seamlessly transition from vacation in the Maldives to table service at the W, while scores of migrant workers are being bussed across the city for night shifts in skyscraper construction, cannot seem anything but hopeless. Maybe homesickness is not the right word for what I felt and still feel about life within those extremes. Maybe it’s more like nostalgia for loss of control. What else can you do in the cold, harsh face of globalization but dance like there’s no tomorrow?
Well, in Qatar, you could go shopping at one of the many mega-malls, where songs like “I Like The Way You Shake Your Ass Around Me” play on the loudspeakers as you try on clothes, power walk, or eat KFC in the food court. In the malls, expats and locals alike enjoyed club music, which was interrupted only occasionally by the reedy tones of call to prayer. As long as there was a backbeat and synth, any manner of expletive or sexual innuendo would go unnoticed.
You could also drive around the desert and listen to QBS Radio, Qatar’s pop music station, which further reinforced the association between club music and the transient world of Gulf expats. The deejays spoke in posh, slurry accents and proffered celebrity gossip and relationship advice between tracks. For a while, it seemed like whenever I tuned in, day or night, one particular song would play without fail. The name of it eluded me until I broke down and searched “Europop song with accordion” for this article. It’s called “Stereo Love” and features breathy, incoherent female vocals and an Azerbaijani folk melody. The music video follows a woman’s journey from mega-yacht to chauffeured ride through an LED-lit city, as she searches for lost love. An age-old tale.
Maybe it’s because I’m from New Jersey that I think a lot about the way music shapes identity. Bruce Springsteen’s blue-collar ballads may at times over-romanticize the Shore I grew up on, but that hasn’t stopped his catalog from becoming both compass and collective memory for natives of the state. The blueprint is simple: rebel, love, reminisce. Though he’s reached global heights in terms of popularity, he is, at heart, a regional artist; his music grows out of place and not the other way around. To me, the defining aspect of the music of the expatriate, today’s radio pop, is that it eschews place—it sounds like blur, like momentum, like it was composed in an airport. It requires you not to act and not to reflect. It sounds like the Internet.
Now that I’m back in America, a restored nomad, I have time to reflect, often with a lot of ambivalence, about my experience in Qatar, a complicated country that gave me so many things in such a short period. One thing I’m not ambivalent about is the value of travel, of exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking. I truly believe that if you’re able to do it, there are few better ways to spend your time and money. The question is, to what end? Exposure doesn’t always equal engagement; I still tune my radio dial like a junkie when the world I’ve seen seems simultaneously too beautiful and too brutal to make any real sense of. In those moments, I just want to close my eyes and listen to Rihanna; I don’t want to feel implicated.
“International oral sex” is a line rapped by 2 Chainz in Jason Derulo’s new(ish) song “Talk Dirty To Me.” Is this something that actually exists? If so, what are its defining features? Oral sex in a country other than the one you were born in? Oral sex with people from all over the world? Oral sex performed in a culturally specific way? Before you think me uncouth, know this song can be heard on the radio at 8 in the morning in Texas. “Talk Dirty to Me” gets a lot of play on Kiss FM, a radio station that also advertises local Christian meet-ups. Its simple message is delivered in the lines:
Been around the world, don’t speak the language
But your booty don’t need explaining
All I really need to understand is
When you talk dirty to me
Chorus (Talk dirty to me x 3)
World without borders. I drive local streets and wonder if I have it all wrong, if this is the paradise we’ve all been seeking since the Fall of Babylon. If somewhere above, Edward Said is slow clapping along with the bass line.