One of the most embarrassing aspects of my new play, How To Fail As A Popstar, is admitting to wanting something as trivial as pop stardom. The play—a solo show that premiered this week in Toronto—chronicles my journey (and yes, failures) to become a tried-and-true popstar.
But as a queer kid in Edmonton, pop music didn’t feel trivial. It was an alternative, fantastical reality—a safe haven, a passage out of my homophobic surroundings. My pop star dream was my way out.
Here are seven songs and artists that nurtured my budding queerness at a time when everything else was doing the opposite.
Listen to the playlist below, or check out Vivek Shraya’s Queer Popstar Playlist.
The song that spoke to me
Janet Jackson – Free Xone (1997)
This was one of the first songs I can remember directly addressing homophobia and thereby highlighting my own experience. I often think of this song and the way it made me feel as I cranked it in my bedroom as evidence of the importance of writing songs intended for specific and marginalized audiences. Queers deserve so much more than having to insert ourselves into the “universality” (code for “heterosexuality”) of pop music.
The song that freed me
George Michael – Freedom ’90 (1990)
This is one of the best (and gayest) songs of all time. The lyrics and melody carry so much intimate longing while also being anthemic. I didn’t really understand the lyrics, but it made me want to rip my clothes off and dance—because “sometimes the clothes do not make the man.” To this day, my road trips aren’t complete without this song.
The song that showed me a queer icon
R.E.M. – Tongue (1994)
I remember reading a Rolling Stone cover story where Michael Stipe talked about his sexuality as fluid and this was a life raft for my bisexual-leaning self. He quickly became one of my first queer role models, especially as he sported thick black eyeliner in the video for this song.
The song that called me out
Tori Amos – Blood Roses (1996)
When Tori screamed “I think you’re a queer” in this song, I felt deeply uncomfortable—but not because I felt verbally assaulted. I felt as though she was seeing me, the parts of myself that I didn’t want to see, and gently ushering me to do the same. Turns out she was right!
The song that made me fall in love with a pop star
Madonna – I’ll Remember (1994)
Despite Madonna’s music (and criticisms of Madonna) being omnipresent throughout my childhood, this was the song that made me a #fan, as I was unable to deny those pulsing synths. Like so many queers growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, she became my #1 partly because of the ways her music and aesthetic deliberately intersected with a broad sexuality.
The song that made me fall in love with pop music
Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You (1992)
My play is dedicated to Whitney because hearing this song—the power of her voice and delivery, the earnestness of her emotion—was what made me curious about pop music. After recently watching her biopics, I find myself wondering if on some level I also heard her as “queer,” and this was partly why she ended up having such a huge impact on me.
My own queer pop song
I’m a fag 4 U – Vivek Shraya (2020)
Partly inspired by ‘90s house and many of the artists on this playlist, this is a love song for my teenage fag self and to all the young faggots seeking redemption in pop music.
How To Fail As A Popstar runs until Mar. 1 at Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.