How I Stopped Fearing ‘Cringe’ and Learned to Embrace My Music Taste

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Happy young woman character listening to music headphones on isolated background.
Have you ever hidden your Spotify listening activity or downplayed something you enjoy? Skyline High School student Olivia Hopkins investigates why aspects of our music taste can make us cringe. (iStock)

Editor’s note: This story is part of KQED’s Youth Takeover. Throughout the week of April 24-28, we’re publishing content by high school students from all over the Bay Area. 

Anytime I feel the urge to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, a sense of shame floods over me. In recent years, I’d go as far as to shut off my shared listening activity and indulge in Spotify incognito mode. I had to listen in secret, because no way were any of my 17 followers going to see that I — a pop hating snob on the surface — find pleasure in singing along to an ultra-popular musical soundtrack.

Behind my strictly alternative facade hides a girl with a taste for musical theater.

I don’t want people to know that I enjoy something so mainstream, especially something that was popular back in middle school. It feels vulnerable to reveal this side of me to the outside world, and it saddens me to be ashamed of a part of my music taste, something so integral to who I am.

As I continue to face these feelings, I’ve started to think, why am I insecure about something I genuinely enjoy? Whose judgment am I afraid of, anyway? And how do other people process these feelings of embarrassment? To get some answers, I set out to speak to three distinct music lovers, and their perspectives challenged me to grow in ways I didn’t expect.


In the back of a classroom, I spoke with Skyline High School student Zane Boyd, a member of an underground SoundCloud community he described as “exclusive.” Zane’s sub-niche is his group, NA (Never Alone). They create experimental beats with influences from an array of genres, including drill and new Sigilkore — a hyper-online rap subgenre involving occult symbols, anime references and heavy layered effects.

Zane says that he and other beatmakers find a sense of community on Discord, where they support one another’s creative ventures and help each other through family and mental health struggles. They prioritize making sure nobody in the group ever feels alone, hence their name.

A young man sits in his room in front of a computer and speakers.
Skyline High School student Zane Boyd is part of a tight-knit music community on SoundCloud and Discord. (Courtesy of Zane Boyd)

Like me, Zane often finds himself writing off mainstream music, but not necessarily because he feels embarrassed. Rather, he believes that supporting his friends’ music is more impactful.

“The way I see it is a lot of people support Drake — someone with millions of dollars and [who] does not acknowledge your existence,” he says. “It’s like, why support Drake when you could support your friends?”

Although he may not wear it on his sleeve, Zane does enjoy some popular music like Paramore and other 2000s artists. But he’s not ashamed. “I’m still proud of it because, why should you be scared to show other people who you are?” he says.

For him, it’s the artist’s values that are important. “It’s more about who the artist is and what they stand for than the music. … I’d be more embarrassed to say I listen to Kanye than to say I listen to Paramore… cause it’s Kanye.”

A young woman plays guitar in a dark club.
Berkeley High School senior Georgia Fishman is the lead singer of the band I’d Rather Sleep. (Courtesy of Georgia Fishman)

Rather than fearing judgment about her music taste, Berkeley High School senior and musician Georgia Fishman says she feels pressure when it comes to her own sound. Georgia is the lead vocalist and guitarist in a band called I’d Rather Sleep, who make experimental alt rock. She’s involved in the local hardcore scene, nicknamed the “Bay scene,” and has performed at all-ages shows at venues like Berkley’s 924 Gilman.

At times, she feels judged by the diehards in the scene, but realizes she can’t appeal to everyone. “Sometimes people are very rigid with their music taste, and then it kind of makes it feel like, ‘Oh no, should we go heavier? Like, are we not accessible enough?’”

Some of Georgia’s own music taste might fall outside of what’s considered typical for the singer of an alt rock band, but she sees her middle school favorites — like Fall Out Boy — as an opportunity to connect with others. Some people may think “that’s cringe,” but Georgia refutes, “It’s not embarrassing, because some people just happened to agree with me.”

A young man stands on stage holding his violin and wearing a Santa hat.
Roman St. Gerard plays violin in the Skyline High School orchestra. (Courtesy of Roman St. Gerard)

For Skyline High violinist Roman St. Gerard, navigating pressures around music has had more to do with his identity. Before, he was apprehensive to let people glance at his phone to see what he was listening to. But — unlike how I hid Hamilton on Spotify — Roman decided to embrace it when he realized his Discord followers could see his Pitch Perfect playlist.

“I’m Black and there’s usually in the Black community a lot of hip-hop and rock,” he says. “And while I do listen to those types of music that might be considered Black music or music that Black people usually listen to… I do find myself listening to other genres as well.”

“I used to think there was some sort of expectation, but I’ve just grown more comfortable with sharing the things I like with others,” he adds.

After hearing from different people my age who love music just as I do, I felt much less alone in my experiences with embarrassment. I realized that you can be proud of your music taste, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit in with your overall image. Maybe guilty pleasures shouldn’t be a source of shame, but rather, a way to connect with others. There’s beauty in being secure in all the things you enjoy.

I’ll try to remember that next time I feel like putting my Spotify in incognito mode.


Olivia Hopkins is a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland. In her free time, she enjoys exploring the outdoors, dancing and eating good food.