Being offered the “aux” is one of those unnecessarily frightening experiences. Sure, it’s an opportunity to share your personal music taste with the world—but that’s not always a boon. You might simultaneously agree with the notions that music being “good” or “bad” is purely subjective, but also that our music taste is a display of identity—so why is one’s personal music taste vulnerable to criticism? The issue here is clear. Let’s say that I’ve made my way to a gathering of friends and acquaintances. Being good humans, these fine folk certainly wouldn’t judge me critically for my ethnicity, features or religious practice. However, their hasty criticism arrives when the speaker plays something they’re not so keen on. Dissenting opinions might not be expressed through faces of disgust or verbal expressions (e.g. “this shit is ass”), but you can definitely recognize them when they appear. “Hey, can I play something?” while the first song you queued is playing. Or, “someone put on Sicko Mode right now!” while you’re trying to play your favorite tune.
The first time I realized my music may not appeal to everyone, I was in middle school. I had just moved to Kent, a quaint little village in Connecticut. My previous life had been located in a Chinese/Indian/Jewish neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey, where every kid and their mom played the violin, piano or both. Turns out, Vivaldi wasn’t quite the bump in Kent, and my Suzuki method grind failed to impress at recess. By the time I departed middle school, my ears had been conditioned to have an appetite for acoustic guitar, country and, of course, whatever hip-hop/pop had found listeners at the time. I shied away from rambling about classical music to new friends, and I slotted myself firmly in the mainstream. Many of my classmates in high school did not know I even played the violin up until recital night in December.
In 10th grade, I was once again put in the uncomfortable suspense of experiencing discomfort with my music taste. Owing to our joint struggle in calculus and physics, I became friends with a group of international students from China. Although I had lived in China when I was young and spoke the language well enough, I crucially lacked an understanding of modern Chinese culture and therefore the musical affinities of my new friends. In China, what “goes hard” isn’t John Mayer—it’s Jay Chou. I confronted this uncomfortable truth in a small dark karaoke room when those around me didn’t want to sing along to Taylor Swift country pop and instead fancied the Chinese folk artist Zhao Lei.
So now what? Do I let the desire to musically assimilate wrangle me again? During my needy high school days, the answer was a resounding “yes.” I engrossed myself in C-Pop, switched over from capitalist Spotify to socialist QQ Music and mended my tastes to fit the crowd.
The issue is, this kind of mimicry isn’t sustainable in the long-term. A similar crisis happened when I entered college. I became amiss with people who were not Chinese. A painfully cringe-worthy memory was when I played a playlist I had curated entitled, “Socially Acceptable (Caucasian)” at a gathering. Despite friends complimenting my choice of artists, and my retrospective tendency to view it as a silly situation, playing specific music based on a demographic felt unsettling. I found myself blasting rap when I was with guys, talking Tay-tay with girls, putting on Weezer when with the Kent homies and queueing alt music when I couldn’t entirely assess the crowd (‘cause everyone loves that stuff, right?). The worst part of it all was that I didn’t owned up to it and instead I pretended I really enjoyed all the music I played for others just to seem likable and relatable.
In the end, there wasn’t a transformative plot arc to where I became invulnerable to my own fear of judgement. I did realize, however, that people don’t actually care about your music choices unless they’re forced to listen to it, so I’ve learned to refuse the aux at functions. However, the Japanese shoegaze I scream my lungs out to in the shower is of my choosing, and naturally of course: my room, my aux.
David Ma is a member of the Class of 2024.