“We’re not doing things the normal way,” says the singer Charli XCX at the start of her new Netflix show, I’m With the Band. She has handpicked four women to form Nasty Cherry, a new rock band. Two are from London and two from California; two are already seasoned musicians and two are complete newbies. They’re now all living in a swanky LA villa, with access to Charli’s management, collaborators and producers. The documentary series follows their first few months of living together, writing songs together, partying together, and doing all it takes to become real rock’n’rollers.
On 1 January this year, Nasty Cherry announced their arrival into the world with an Instagram video showing a flute of champagne balanced on the arse of Georgia, the bassist, in a jacuzzi. The video is captioned “Hi. We’re Nasty Cherry and we’re the best band of 2019.” So in some ways, Charli is right: they are not doing things the “normal way”.
And in other ways, they really are. Nasty Cherry is a manufactured band – there isn’t anything new about picking out a group of good-looking, charismatic young people and labelling them “the next big thing”. Admittedly, this isn’t quite X Factor territory – Charli XCX straddles the line between alt-pop and trendy electronica, and Nasty Cherry seem to be emulating the Spice Girls via the Runaways – but the concept remains the same. Despite Charli claiming that Nasty Cherry is the all-female band she wishes existed when she was 14 – and, by doing so, setting up an ideological aim for this project – this is no grassroots revolt against the money-making machine that is the popular entertainment industry.
Where Charli goes, a certain Instagram-friendly sheen follows, and Gabi (vocals), Chloe (guitar), Georgia (bass) and Debbie (drums) are now just two steps behind. First things first, when Charli is invited to a glitzy Spotify event, the quartet crash the party to join her on the red carpet. “There’s always been this debate about hype before the product, product before the hype. I don’t really care,” says Charli in a cut-away that shows her, stern-faced, narrating from a cosy sofa. Emmie Lichtenberg, who has taken on the mantle of Nasty Cherry’s manager, sits beside her, nodding. “We just want people to be like ‘Who the fuck are Nasty Cherry?’ Get them on the red carpet, get those Getty images, get that watermark.”
Nasty Cherry do as they’re told. On the red carpet they stand around Charli, who tells the paparazzi, “They’re gonna be really huge.” And anyone looking at the four of them, with their sky-high heels and high-fashion tiny sunglasses, wouldn’t deny it. But how many times can Charli pronounce them the biggest band of the year before they actually make any music? Later that night, Debbie has the same thought. “It’s crazy that we’ve done a red carpet and we’ve not played our instruments,” she ponders. It’s also crazy that she’s talking to camera while having a cigarette in her pyjamas and a hoodie, sitting by the swimming pool of an LA mansion.
After watching them all neck a lot of champagne, we finally start hearing some music from the band and grow to learn more about its members. They have made some serious sacrifices for Nasty Cherry: Georgia has left a successful career in set design in London to be here; Chloe has temporarily turned her back on her first band, Kitten, and her old bandmates – who seem sceptical about her new project. They all have put their utmost trust in Charli, believing that her success, her connections and her ambitions for Nasty Cherry, will take them to great heights.
But there is something about the staging of this emotional upheaval as a Netflix reality TV show that feels disjointed on practical terms. At one of the few moments in the series that could be genuinely gripping – when one of the members suddenly announces her departure from the band, and the remaining three are distraught – I don’t feel on edge. Because so long as the whole series is filmed in advance of it airing – as a binge-worthy Netflix show demands – and so long as the band maintains a public profile in real life – as any band trying to “make it” must – there will be no surprise narrative twist. To put it simply: I know the band member who quits will return, because I saw all four of them in an Instagram post just yesterday. When Charli, from her narrator’s sofa, asks “Is this the end before it even began?”, I can safely say, no, it isn’t – Nasty Cherry had an interview in the NME just last month.
That isn’t to detract from the fun and frivolity of I’m With the Band – and genuine fans of Nasty Cherry and Charli XCX will have a field day seeing behind-the-scenes action of the musicians dropping their dinner on the kitchen floor, struggling to open bottles of wine, and lounging around the aforementioned pool. But by building “hype before the product”, Nasty Cherry are relegated to trying to be the most successful band in the world only by existing in the realms of what they already understand success to be. If they had been allowed to let their creative impetus – their music – lead their image, ideology, and career, maybe they would have become the exciting, rebellious band Charli set out to create. Instead, the show sees them spend their days posturing.
Five (out of six) episodes in, Chloe comes to a realisation. “The acceleration of the band is unnatural,” she says. “We didn’t choose each other. The Ramones chose. Know what I mean?”