Vivek Shraya's 'How to Fail as a Popstar' pushes against the expectation of resilience

"We're not allowed to sit in the struggle," Shraya said

Vivek Shraya has transformed the How to Fail as a Popstar story for the screen with a new series on CBC Gem.

In How to Fail as a Popstar, an adaptation of the play and subsequent book, Shraya isn't afraid of leaning into the reality of failure. Specifically, trying really hard to achieve a goal that never materializes.

Watch How to Fail as a Popstar

While Shraya is known as an award-winning artist, author and musician, her career didn't begin with pop stardom, which was the dream growing up.

"I certainly thought about this a lot as someone who didn't have success with music, but then most of the success I've had has been largely through other mediums," Shraya told Yahoo Canada. "If I have the privilege of people knowing who I am or knowing my work, the first thing they'll say is, 'Oh she's a writer,' and it's always been a little bit unsettling because in my mind, I don't see myself as a writer, despite publishing as many books as I have."

"I very much see myself as a singer and I think that simultaneously, I've had to think a lot about resilience, especially when you're a marginalized person in the world. Whether you're a woman, you're a femme, you're BIPOC, you're queer, we're expected to be resilient. We're not allowed to sit in the struggle. We're supposed to be like, well despite all of the harassment or the prejudice that we've encountered, look at us here, we've persevered. ... I think for me, this project felt like an important gesture in pushing against that, especially because the older I've gotten, the more my heartbreak around music has widened, and it hasn't just gone away."

The new series follows the journey of young, queer and pop music obsessed teen Vivek, who becomes an adult and moves from Edmonton to Toronto to pursue a pop career, and things don't go as planned (younger versions of the character played by Chris D’Silva and Adrian Pavone).

How to Fail as a Popstar, with eight episodes, each about 10 minutes long, is equal parts an emotional journey and funny comedy, with an appealing 1990s and 2000s aesthetic, packaged with unique and compelling visuals to make you fall in love with this story.

Vivek Shraya's 'How to Fail as a Popstar' pushes against the expectation of resiliency (Photo by Jeremy Chan/Getty Images)
Vivek Shraya's 'How to Fail as a Popstar' pushes against the expectation of resiliency (Photo by Jeremy Chan/Getty Images)

Vivek Shraya, Vanessa Matsui collaborate on a love story

In 2020, Shraya's play debuted just before things were locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also cancelled the play's planned tour.

Shraya explained that while she was working on her one-person play, there were conversations about what this project could look like on screen, but she admitted that she felt the world of TV and film was "quite elusive."

"I've wanted to break in for years and years and years, and despite knowing various people in the industry, it's just been hard to figure out the entry point," Shraya said.

Then the CBC launched the Creative Relief Program to support artists who lost work during the pandemic, which included a program that supported playwrights to write a pilot, which kickstarted How to Fail as a Popstar coming to life as a series.

Watch How to Fail as a Popstar

Shraya met the show's director Vanessa Matsui doing live reading of Mean Girls, and as Matsui described, they worked very closely on How to Fail as a Popstar.

Matsui highlighted that while the story is largely about failure, it's also a love story.

"Even now that I watched the series, I actually feel like there's three love stories, which is the love for music, the love for [friend] Sabrina, but also this unwavering love that a mother has for her child," Matsui said.

Shraya also recognized that she learned so much from Matsui, specifically how the director gave feedback to actors.

"One of the things I thought was so lovely was that she would never do it on the spot, in front of all these people watching, she would always pull the actor aside, even if it was good feedback," Shraya said. "I remember just thinking, what a wonderful way to communicate feedback, because it's so vulnerable."

"You have all these people around, they're watching you, they're watching you on the monitor and the very few scenes that I was in, I found it immensely vulnerable to be in front of all those people. So I just really appreciate how sensitive and generous she was, but also a total boss. She came in with her shot list, she knew what she was doing and I hope that we can make other things together in the future."

As an actor herself, Matsui not only loves working with actors, but loves to watch how they work.

"I don't like to over direct or micromanage, especially when we're all just still figuring out the scene," Matsui said.

'Often things don't work out, but it's still always worth trying'

With the concept of fame being evaluated through the series, Matsui believes there's also something so connected to the '90s when it comes to exploring Shraya's dream of being a pop star.

"I think that was definitely an era [when] things were so different, because it's pre-internet, pre-cellphone," Matsui said. "It was really important to us to get it right and also to have fun exploring this era that obviously had its faults, but was also in some ways kind of innocent and a bit more free, because we didn't have the same constant social media."

"It was a different time and I think fame also meant something so completely different in the '90s than it does today. Like for example, you can be TikTok famous and there's somebody on TikTok that might have 50 million followers, and this is someone that I have never heard of. But back in the day, back in the '90s, if you were famous, ... everybody knew who the famous people were."

When it comes fame, Shraya identified that she "struggles" with the concept.

"Part of it is that when I hear the word fame or celebrity, I think of people who want to be known for the sake of being known," Shraya said. "I'm not dismissing that goal, I think if that's what you want, great, but I think for me, and maybe this is why I wasn't as successful as I wanted to be, but when I think about what I wanted, it was actually impact."

"I wanted my art, my music, my voice to reach people the way that like Whitney Houston and Salt-N-Pepa, and Sheryl Crow and Madonna had reached me. I've had to definitely redefine my ideas of impact and success as a 42-year-old artist. Despite the fact that there are times that my publishing career, or my other artistic endeavours, feel like a little bit of a consolation prize, I have to work really hard to remind myself that it's still a form of impact. It's not stadiums and it's not the top of Billboard charts, and it's not Saturday Night Live, but every DM, as corny as it sounds, of someone who has engaged with your art, we're not entitled to an audience, and I think maybe that's the biggest lesson I've learned."

In working on the How to Fail as a Popstar show, Shraya identified that one of the biggest realizations she's had is how "audacious" her dream was.

"Of all the art forms that I've pursued I really think that music is maybe the hardest one," Shraya said. "I would say in some ways, it's easier to be published, at least in this country, than it is to be a successful musician."

"The music industry is very broken and so working on the show, it just really occurred to me how wild it was for me being this brown, queer kid in Edmonton in the '80s and '90s with not a lot of support, and just my mom's love, and a voice and a passion. Despite that, believing that it was going to happen for me."

Additionally, one of Shraya's biggest take aways from the series is how much she loves that childhood version of herself.

"That kid did not know that he was up against the odds," Shraya said. "He didn't know that realistically was never going work out for him, but he still just went for it."

"I think that's one of the messages we really want people to take away from the show is that, yeah, sometimes things don't work out, and actually often things don't work out, but it's still always worth trying."