Top of the pops
The music industry laid bare from inside the machine
By Ng Wei Chian
Bricks in the Wall: Tall Tales from the Music Industry
An '80s pop kid and lifelong music geek. Such is the author's personality that comes across in Troy Chin's Bricks in the Wall: Tall Tales from the Music Industry, simultaneously a send-up and a loving tribute to pop music, its travails, and the machinery behind it. Chin's 10th release through his Dreary Weary Comics imprint follows the autobiographical The Resident Tourist series and kids' comic Loti, both of which offered snapshots of Singapore life from two very different angles. In Bricks, Chin turns his focus on the music industry, and what results is, at times, an expose, a pointed parody or an acknowledgement of what drives the world of pop: money, drugs, fame and, last but not least, the many pleasures music can offer.
Bricks draws mainly on two sources: the author's intimate acquaintance with the music industry via his brief employment at a major record label (he worked in Sony-BMG's [present-day Sony Music Entertainment] finance department in New York from 2002 to 2007) and his undying devotion to pop. The book comprises a collection of vignettes divided into five sections: Dreams, Ambition, Ideals, Passion and Tenacity. Opening with a panel of junior college kids contemplating life after A-levels against the backdrop of Singapore's skyline, Bricks launches swiftly into the halcyon days of 1980's pop and ends in the present, a time which has seen the Internet wreak havoc on the music industry, engendering the rise of the laptop musician.
Chin's stories are populated by a variety of figures: the wide-eyed naοf, the small-town band on the cusp of megastardom, and the struggling Singapore musician. In the background lurk the grizzled A&R veteran, the payola-prone DJ and the indie snob record store clerk, all among the many cogs which keep the industry's wheels greased and running. Anyone of this reviewer's vintage will discover that Bricks is a catalogue of their listening history: Chin begins his parables with the SAW era (British producers Stock, Aitken & Waterman, responsible for the likes of Bananarama, Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue, and immortalised in Bricks as HIT), segues into the hair metal days (Lethal Venom stands in for real-life glam-metal band, Poison), and casts a knowing eye at the boyband era, K-pop and Justin Bieber (who, as pubescent popster Haley Sparrow in '#1 Crush', goes the way of countless underaged celebrities by losing favour with his label; thanks to puberty and later barrelling straight into rehab).
Bricks reads like An Introduction to the Music Industry, with Chin chiming in at each vignette to provide explanations, sage advice or closure to an episode. Trainspotters will revel in the in-jokes which fill the pages, while anyone with a passing association with the industry will find plenty that rings true, at times distressingly so. In 'Starry Eyed', Chin's alter ego, Toby Chen, plunges into the heady world of the pop music industry by snagging a job at a major label's finance department, only to find that the 'business' of the music business weighs heavy indeed, with musicians' fates dictated by spreadsheets, trend reports and ROI analyses; while in 'Little Lies', aspiring singer-songwriter Pearletta Lee comes up against the harsh reality of playing music in Singapore the dreaded requests to play covers and a virtually non-existent industry (which a know-it-all barfly explains to Pearletta can be blamed on the government's ban on live rock/pop in the 1960's/70's).
Through it all, however, Chin manages not to lose faith entirely in the fundamental power of music. The 'tales' are bookended by teenage promises to rock on as adulthood looms amid the crush of life, jobs and the passing of time, the cycles of the music-making life continue, as hopefuls wait for their lucky break and fans keep an eye out for the next big thing.
The author's postscript states that the book was done in a 'totally silly comedic style' to blunt the potential grittiness of many of the stories. Chin succeeds in this respect: the stories are light-hearted satires, infused with strong doses of cornball humour. Illustration-wise, he has chosen the simpler, more rounded lines which characterised the drawings in Loti. One wishes Chin had gone with the manga-inspired style showcased in The Resident Tourist the epic cast of characters in Bricks would have benefited from the stronger definition, which might have lent the depictions greater poignancy. Partly due to this, the characters tend to meld visually into one another. The dialogue also fumbles in parts; at times stilted and forced, with each vignette blending into the other as characters struggle to find their own voices. The font used for the author's voice (possibly Calibri) also makes an odd contrast with the lettering in the panels at best it is a distraction; at worst it underlines the aforementioned cornball humour in parts.
While the book trips up occasionally on the above, this doesn't take away from the fact that it's a valuable addition to the genre of Singapore comics. One also notes that Chin received support from the National Arts Council for the book. Chin mentioned to this reviewer before that attempts earlier in his comics career to secure funding met with frustration the Arts Council's surprising openness to Bricks can only be a good sign and is hopefully a harbinger of greater recognition for comics in the future here in Singapore.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013