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Vivek Shraya Reimagines Success With How To Fail As A Popstar

The Interdisciplinary artist takes full advantage of her TV time with a new eight-episode series on CBC Gem. 

by Sebastian Buzzalino

As an interdisciplinary artist, Vivek Shraya knows how to failalmost by design. Every time she immerses herself in a new medium, she’s bound to fail at the start. She’s written books, she’s written children’s books, she’s published volumes of poetry; she’s released more than a dozen solo albums in a bid to pursue pop stardom; she’s written, produced and performed in theatrical plays. Now, she’s doing it for everyone to see in her newest project, How To Fail As A Popstar, premiering October 13 on CBC Gem with an accompanying soundtrack release.

How to Fail As A Popstar originally debuted in concept at Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo in January 2020. Shraya toured it across Canada for the first three months of 2020, until the world shut down. That was that, thought Shraya, and perhaps another quasi-failure to add to the list. Undeterred, Shraya took hold of new opportunities, including the Creative Relief Fund CBC was offering at the time: a grant to turn a play into a television pilot for CBC Gem. For a prolific artist that seems to embrace an almost constant sense of change and renewal in her career, the jump from stage to screen was natural.

“I know it sounds silly, but every time I approach a new medium, there’s a part of me that walks in not with ego, but with a certain kind of sense that skills are versatile. Like, I’m an artist, so why can I not do this?” she says. Shraya and I are tucked away in a corner of the red carpet at the Calgary International Film Festival, where the first three episodes of How To Fail As A Popstar premiered for the world. 

“I remember when I started in theatre, I’m like, ‘Well, I’m a storyteller, I’m a musician, I’m a terrible dancer. I can write books, I could write the script.’ But it was actually really challenging in really meaningful ways. The older I get, the more I realize I’m an interloper and the more I realize how specific each genre or medium can be, and it’s exciting to learn new skills all the time.”

How To Fail As A Popstar follows a young Vivek Shraya growing up in the 80s in Edmonton. As a queer Brown kid in what is largely imagined as a bleak hinterland punctuated only by mundane mall scenes, Shraya yearned for an escape through the biggest pop artists of the time. Pop music on that sort of global cultural scale was salvation for Shraya, and she put everything into achieving that level of success and stardom. Of course, the game was stacked against her, even if she didn’t realize it at the time, and she was bound for failure.

“As trivial as it seems, that’s what I really wanted: pop stardom,” she says. “But I do try to push against this idea of it being trivial because I think when you’re a queer kid in Alberta, you’re looking for anything to get you out, at least in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Watching MuchMusic, I was like, ‘Oh, those people are doing something that maybe will get me out of here.’”

Our culture has never dealt with the idea of failure very well. Under late-stage capitalism, failure is anathema to the ideology. It can be seen as a personal shortcoming that almost reads as a lack of moral character, a sense of inherent lack that (usually) stems from not working hard enough, from not being productive enough. Intersect that with Shraya’s queer identity as a trans woman — a decidedly non-normative brown body that falls well outside of patriarchy — and she seems particularly well-positioned to make the case of failure as emancipatory (and not in a tech-bro capitalist sense, where failure is “owned” but rarely accounted for; a systemic cultural failure that the white saviour fixes rather than a personal failure because sometimes, people are just not good enough at the thing.)

“Resilience is a buzzword in queer communities, in social justice communities, marginalized communities. You always have to be resilient. But, it’s really hard to be resilient all the time,” she says. “And I think resilience is beautiful, but we skip a step and that step is actually owning disappointment. To say, ‘This hurts,’ or, ‘This sucks.’ I tried at something or I wanted something, or I had feelings for someone and they weren’t realized. There are so many ways in which we don’t create space for saying something didn’t work out. And I think that’s so important, especially in a culture that’s so obsessed with success stories, and so obsessed with the ability to be good at everything.”

“Once you turn your art into your job, there’s all kinds of weird benchmarks and markers and, you know, you’re thinking about being popular, you’re thinking about money, and there were moments for me in music when I just forgot to have fun. I forgot that I actually really liked to do it.”

So, young Vivek Shraya never became a pop star. She’s a tremendous artist in her own right, just not a global pop star. (Even now, I instinctively temper the failure at the centre of her project with well-earned compliments.) How to Fail is at times tender, at times hilarious, and always comes with a deep sense of humanity of someone really, really trying to go for it. But sometimes it’s just not in the stars, for a million and one reasons that have nothing to do with Shraya’s skill or will. Often, failure is just that: failure. It didn’t work out, it probably won’t work out, we can try again, but failure will rear its head again.

The irony is that How to Fail is successful in what it sets out to accomplish. Shraya failed as a pop star, but sitting with that failure allowed her to transmute it into a theatrical release, a television series, and a complete soundtrack. It brought her so many new experiences, from the first table read over Zoom, to giving space for the actors to reinterpret her history as their own, to experiencing unexpected moments of healing as the characters went through what she went through so many years ago. Believing in herself even in the depths of failure is what drove Shraya to create this constellation of new work, and the night sky is much better for her failures and successes alike.