Vivek Shraya’s “How to Fail as a Popstar” Makes Failure Look Good

This review contains mild spoilers for How to Fail as a Popstar.

Last year, I made a short film, my first not shot on a phone since I transitioned. When people asked me what I planned to do with the film I was torn between my artistic ambitions and the artistic realities I discovered throughout my twenties.

“Most of my favorite trans filmmakers have mostly (or only) made shorts, so this isn’t a proof of concept or a calling card — this is the work of art,” I repeated again and again. Then I’d add, “But, I mean, I do have two feature scripts ready to go that are tonally similar so maybe…”

To make it as an artist in general is hard. To make it as an artist uncategorizable to the mainstream due to sexuality or gender or race or just the specific idiosyncrasies of your voice is nearly impossible. Especially if you don’t come from money, don’t have connections, and happen to have been born in the “wrong” place. But what does it mean to make it? People are rarely referring to the art itself. The it is not the work, the it is a career, a career of a certain stature. Is it not enough to simply make it, a work of art?

Vivek Shraya has made it. The it I’m referring to is a stage show titled How to Fail as a Popstar that last year was adapted into a digital CBC series of the same name. I’ve been waiting to write about the show until it received a U.S. release, or, maybe, even, was expanded into a full TV show. But why wait? The work exists now. So much of the best queer art requires you to travel to an archive or dig into the depths of the internet — to watch this series outside of Canada all you have to do is download ExpressVPN.

Ultimately, a digital CBC series — the eight episodes range between about 7 and 12 minutes — is the perfect conduit for a story about redefining success. And How to Fail as a Popstar embraces the limitations of its length and budget. Shraya and director Vanessa Matsui have crafted a work bursting with queer creativity, a story of artistic reality alive with artistic possibility.

How to Fail as a Popstar is about Vivek, a South Asian Canadian boy growing up in Edmonton. He lives with his supportive mom, is besties with fellow outsider Sabrina, and dreams of being a popstar. Three actors (including Shraya herself) play Vivek as she tries to win talent competitions, fights for a record deal, navigates bad producers and management, and generally struggles to get noticed.

Like Shraya’s novel The Subtweet, this show pays attention to the minutiae of the music industry. There’s a mundanity to the hardships Vivek faces from racist and homophobic microaggressions to taking out a $20,000 loan only to end up with an EP you hate. Just when all hope is lost, a new possibility arises. No matter that the new possibility only occasionally pays off.

But even as we watch Vivek struggle with the realities of attempted popstardom, there’s a light found in her fantasies of the future. Even when played by the two male actors, present day Vivek appears in musical fantasies — brief glimpses and full music videos — hinting what’s to come. Vivek will succeed at becoming this glamorous, professional singer. After all, it’s Shraya herself in these moments, appearing in scenes shot for a TV show. (Or, you know, a CBC digital series.) The existence of the series itself is its own happy ending.

While The Subtweet focuses on the music industry, this series reminded me just as much of my favorite of Shraya’s books: She of the Mountains. In this book, Shraya weaves together Hindu mythology with a contemporary love story between a man and a woman. Or, rather, two women, one of whom knows he’s queer but does not yet know his womanhood. How to Fail as a Popstar lives in a similarly complicated state of in-betweenness with gender and sexuality. As Vivek’s relationship with Sabrina evolves from friendship to partnership, it’s allowed to exist within bisexuality and gender confusion and impossible career aspirations. It’s so much more complex, so much more deeply felt, than the “gay man dates a woman who becomes his best friend” narrative we’re often shown. Because, of course, Vivek isn’t a gay man.

Nadine Bhabha as middle and older Sabrina links the series’ later episodes. With charm and a deeply felt wisdom, Bhabha creates a character who subverts the role of long-suffering girlfriend. Even when Vivek’s aspirations crack at the seams of their relationship, Bhabha never loses track of the complicated love between Vivek and Sabrina that informs — and will outlast — their romance.

And Shraya and Matsui don’t portray this bond as sexless. One episode opens with a steamy make out between Vivek and Sabrina, asserting that their partnership was not a product of mere confusion. Like She of the Mountains, this is a complicated love story where sensuality and sexuality exist alongside frustration and discovery.

The romance isn’t the only subversive relationship in the series. Vivek’s mother (a lovely performance from Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves) supports Vivek’s artistic pursuits from the beginning. The series presents a middle ground between privilege and rejection. Vivek’s mother may not be able to shell out $20,000 to the music producer, but she will cosign a loan for her child’s dreams.

These two women aid Vivek into becoming her own woman, one who never succeeds at ultimate popstardom, but who does write several books, release a lot of music, and, eventually, create a solo stage show that is adapted into the series we’re watching. These might not be the dreams of youth — they are still remarkable accomplishments.

Toward the end of the series, Vivek is confronted with her influence on a younger generation, an influence she meets with both pride and resentment. Rather than allow this moment to be one of easy inspiration, Shraya lets the mix of feelings linger.

Maybe that’s what being an artist is all about. You create your art, but not enough. You change people’s lives, but not enough. You even become famous, but not enough. You struggle and struggle and struggle until finally you make it, only to realize it turned out differently than you’d hoped.

Vivek Shraya may have failed to become a popstar. But, lucky for us, she became so much more.

How to Fail as a Popstar is now available to stream in Canada on CBC Gem. If you’re not in Canada, get a VPN! It’s 2024!

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.

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