Has America Watered Down International Nightlife?

A Barbados Food and Wine Festival Special Report
By Gamal Hennessy

For the first night of the Barbados Food and Wine Festival, my best friend and I decided to hit some of the more well known nightlife spots on the southern part of the island. I had visited the island a couple years back for the Barbados Jazz Festival and felt I had a good feel for some of the mainstream spots. She was a reggae fanatic who was looking forward to a weekend with her favorite music. The combination of the two of us, the island nightlife scene and large quantities of rum seemed like the perfect equation for a good time.

Over the long weekend, we visited a weekly outdoor festival in a town called Oistins, took a trip to the venues on St. Lawrence Gap and ended in a club on the beach called Harbor Lights. There was a good mixture of age groups and nationalities in the crowds, and it was clear that locals and tourists mingled freely in most spots. The food was good. The drinks were strong and free flowing. For the most part, it was a welcomed change of pace from typical New York nightlife.

If there was one element that watered down the experience, it was in the DJ booth. We got to Oistins ready for a huge reggae jam. We got a set full of Lady Gaga, Queen, Kanye West and Michael Jackson. We went to Harbor Lights looking for a live band and dancing on the beach. We got 2 hours of house music and 20 minutes of reggae. Frustrated, we tried to find the DJ to request more local music, only to determine that “the DJ” was probably just an iPod. In venues where the unique nightlife culture of the island could be on full display, the operators decided to offer a musical selection that you can find in any generic club in the tri-state area.

I sat on the balcony of my hotel room sipping several rum punches and wondering what the problem was. Barbados wasn’t the only place where generic music was becoming the norm. I was in Lisbon earlier this year and the spots we hit at night offered very little in the way of local nightlife music. The Portuguese seem to have an obsession with American pop music from the 80s and 90s. You hear it in the bars, in the restaurants, in the clubs and even in the cabs.

Now I know that visiting a few clubs in cities on separate continents doesn’t exactly constitute scientific research. I can see that my observations don’t exactly signal a world-wide epidemic of generic music. I acknowledge there are bigger problems in the world in general and nightlife in particular than what music the DJ plays.

I understand that American music is an international entertainment juggernaut. And yes, on a certain level it is empowering and flattering to know that the tastes and influences of our country can be found in every major city, town, village and bar around the world. But that doesn’t mean I have to fly a thousand miles and get groped by airport security just to hear Lady Gaga does it?

Nightlife is a part of the culture in any city. Different cities and cultures create different nightlife experiences that are reflected in their music, their liquor and other forms of expression. New Orleans produced jazz. Havana developed salsa. Chicago did the same thing for house. London nurtured punk. Kingston gave us reggae. New York created hip hop. The unique nature of each city produced unique musical forms. The evolution of local expression through music can continue and create new forms of music, unless everyone everywhere decides to just keep playing Michael Jackson every night.

Maybe the rise of digital music and internet distribution will homogenize music and make everything pretty much the same all over. Maybe people seeking different nightlife experiences when they travel will have to go deeper into the underground to get what they want. Or perhaps the power and influence of American culture can help unique nightlife culture thrive. If nightlife natives use their vacations and business trips to seek out new music, local operators around the world will strive to provide it. Ultimately operators are business people who want to provide the entertainment that we will pay for. If we are willing to pay for Lady Gaga on vacation, that’s what we will get. If we want more and ask for it, we just might get it.

Have fun.