Vigilantonie probably isn’t going to get us out of the cost-of-living crisis, but at least she gives you something fun to listen to while you’re waiting for your Centrelink to come through.
Sitting on the corner of Albert and Raleigh St, just north of the Footscray train line, is Mamma Chen’s. It’s a squat, two-storey thing of brick and washed out concrete. I almost pass it as I roll up via a short walk from Footscray Station down Irving St–it’s easy to mistake for a rundown warehouse. The sign out front is what gives it away. A hot-pink protrusion that draws your eyes to the prim, white lettering of “MAMMA CHEN’S”.
About 114 years ago, the building which houses Mamma’s started its life as the United Friendly Societies Dispensary. Friendly societies were organisations that existed before the welfare state to provide workers and their families with insurance and pensions. In the case of 42a Albert St, it supplied local members with health services to alleviate the medical consequences of working in the factories which dominated the west.
But now it is Mamma Chen’s, and I am making my way inside. I’m here to see Vigilantonie. The bar staff notice me, looking clueless, and ask if I’m here to see Vigilantonie. “Yes,” I say. Mamma’s prides itself on an accessible, welcoming vibe and I start to see it in action: the bar staff, very kindly, walk me through menu and venue. Later, I discover via poster-above-toilet that they do student drink discounts. "Wow, I love Mamma Chen's," I think to myself after slamming three $8 whiskey and cokes.
2000s pop music is a music of opulence. Clean vocals over expensive beats sung by people in shiny clothes. But what happens to that opulence when you live in Melbourne and not LA, when there is a “cozzie livs” but successive governments across decades have hollowed out the welfare institutions that could fix it, when those same governments have left the arts defunded and our music industry totally fucked, when the entire notion of “opulence” has been problematised as the undeniable reality of social class claws its way back into the discourse? Well, I suppose Vigilantonie is what happens.
Vigilantonie is a Melbourne-based artist whose musical stylings certainly pay homage to these noughties forebears. She’s a believer in the big, bright chorus, the boom-clap drum machine and, as latest single ‘Peroxide’ reveals, she’s not above some autotune or Fergie-esque spell-out-the-word lyricism. She sings of wanting to be “Gwen Stefani cool”–instead, she’s stuck trying to make ends meet with sugar daddies twice her age (‘Sugar’), or using culinary metaphors to resist a descent into nihilism (‘Cooked’). Like many of her hyperpop contemporaries, Vigilantonie deploys the sonic (and visual!) aesthetics of idealised pasts long gone to elucidate how everything ended up so—to put it in Vigilantonie’s words—cooked.
And so, it makes sense for Vigilantonie’s Friday night headline debut to be at Mamma Chen’s, this rough-around-the-edges testament to a time when overworked proles still found a way to look after one another. Although, it may have been difficult for these late 19th century factory workers to predict that their den would someday host a “Hyperbarbie Bimbo Party”. (Clearly, it was difficult for my wardrobe to predict my eventual attendance at a pink-themed “Hyperbarbie Bimbo Party” as well. Alas, my only clothes are turtlenecks in varying shades of black.)
A launch party of such hyperbarbie proportions clearly called for some decoration: the Mamma’s bandroom was decked out with shiny streamers, a projector playing Legally Blonde and the bimbo tour de force, silver balloons that spelled out “YAY SLUTZ”.
Opening first for Vigilantonie is Simo Soo, who hits us with a noisy, dance-y take on punk rap in a set that includes several original songs and a SOPHIE cover.
Our second opener is Hayley Crymble—a name, Hayley tells us, that “maybe you’ll want to remember”. She has a real confidence about her, a nascent dance-pop idol energy that blossomed as her set progressed. Thematically, she was an appropriate addition, her set-list consisting of original songs about being a model in space, being horny on main, love in its various forms and, of course, a cover of ‘Barbie Girl’.
Eventually, Vigilantonie takes to the stage. She’s wearing a platinum blonde wig and a cheerleader outfit made of goon bags, on her hand is a boxing glove containing the mic. The handmade goon garb might be one of the funniest, most inventive costumes I’ve seen a performer take to the stage. It perfectly encapsulates what Vigilantonie is all about too: the preppy glam of the cheerleader outfit is cleverly undercut by pairing it with a material well-known to any Australian who has ever been a broke teenager. Once more, Vigilantonie forces the question of class (and of which bevvy is best for the bush doof) into the discourse of pop performance.
And performance is the keyword here. Vigilantonie is—clearly—a performer at heart. You have no choice but to buy into her bizarre bimbocore fantasy because she sells it with such sincerity. She’s humping the air from her knees while singing about sugar daddies, she’s putting on her best ditzy blonde impression as she professes her love for her drug dealer, she is cackling with an unnerving authenticity as she finishes lyrically enumerating the “clowns” she’s dated. When she launches the eponymous single ‘Peroxide’ towards the latter end of the set, she’s whipping out the pom-poms and doing a full cheerleader routine—she mimes the letters “B-L-A-N-D-E” and we’re miming them right back.
Yet, this is not performance that aims at concealment of the self. The whole act of “Vigilantonie” is underpinned by an honest need for intimacy—with herself, with the audience, with someone who isn’t looking to “use” her. At the end of the show, Vigilantonie talks about growing up among the Hillsong Church in a small town, recontextualising an earlier rendition of The Pussycat Dolls’ ‘When I Grow Up’. It’s an honesty that elevates the entire endeavour, weaving another dimension of affective subtext below the hyperactive, hyperconfident performance.
(Oh, Vigilantonie also had a DJ and his name was Barnaby and he was good fun! He had a whole Ken vibe going on and their banter was enlivening. We love Barnaby.)
I left Mamma Chen’s thinking about something culture writer Charlie Squire says in their analysis of the hyperpop phenomenon. For Squire, hyperpop “suggest[s] a movement, a desire, action reaching towards something that is never actualized”. A sense of unfulfilled want animates the Vigilantonie project, but it is in the live performance that we see articulated a vision for something real and different, what Squire calls a “wholeness that is to be found in the experiential, the confessional, the abstract and necessarily the intemporal”.
For the hour that she performed, Vigilantonie transformed that small bandroom in that battered building into something experiential. It’s raunchy, it’s real and there was never a dull moment. Vigilantonie probably isn’t going to get us out of the cost-of-living crisis, but at least she gives you something fun to listen to while you’re waiting for your Centrelink to come through.
You can listen to Vigilantonie on Spotify here or follow them on Instagram here.