Michelle Yeoh gets multidimensional in 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' : Pop Culture Happy Hour Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of movie that lives up to its title. It's a zany and profound sci-fi action comedy set in multiple dimensions, bursting with ideas about the pursuit of happiness, familial duty and the meaning of life. It stars Michelle Yeoh as a businesswoman whose world is turned upside down the day her family attempts to file their taxes. Forced to confront her life choices, she clashes with her daughter, her husband and a cranky IRS inspector in the weirdest of ways.

Michelle Yeoh gets multidimensional in 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

"Everything Everywhere All At Once" is the kind of movie that lives up to its title and then some. It's a zany and profound sci fi action-comedy set in multiple dimensions, bursting with ideas about the pursuit of happiness, familial duty and the meaning of life. It stars Michelle Yeoh as a businesswoman whose world is turned upside down the day her family attempts to file their taxes. Forced to confront her life choices, she clashes with her daughter, husband and a cranky IRS inspector in the weirdest of ways. I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Everything Everywhere All At Once" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Joining me today is NPR producer Mallory Yu. Welcome back, Mallory.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey, Aisha.

HARRIS: And also joining us is the host of NPR's Book Of The Day podcast and a reporter for NPR's Culture Desk, Andrew Limbong. Welcome back to you, too, Andrew.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Yo, what up?

HARRIS: I am very excited to talk about this movie with you both.

(LAUGHTER)

YU: Man.

LIMBONG: It's a lot of movie to talk about. Yeah.

HARRIS: So to set it up a little bit, in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," which is itself a lot to talk about - the title - Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn Wang, a harried businesswoman who co-owns a laundromat with her husband Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan. Now, Michelle's life is a little chaotic when the movie begins. They're looking after her crotchety elderly dad, Gong Gong, played by James Hong. She has a prickly relationship with her queer daughter, Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu. And her marriage to Waymond is on the rocks. On top of all that, they need to file their taxes and must deal with Deirdre, an exasperated IRS auditor, played by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis. Now, when they arrive at their meeting with Deirdre, things get weird. Evelyn is plunged down a rabbit hole, or rather a janitor's closet...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: ...Of multiple dimensions, timelines and possible selves. It's kind of impossible to truly describe the madness that ensues. So the short of it is it plays sort of like a video game, where you have to learn the rules of the realm as you go along. There are sick martial arts sequences and sentient rocks pondering existential questions. There's generational trauma and so much more we're going to try not to spoil here. It's a lot. The movie's written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, billed professionally as the Daniels. And the movie is in theaters now. I highly recommend everyone see it on a big screen for sure 'cause it's that kind of movie.

YU: For sure.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: (Laughter) So, Andrew, let's start with you. What did you think of the movie?

LIMBONG: Yeah. Straight off the bat, it rocks.

HARRIS: Is that a pun?

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Oh, yeah. I guess so. I thought it was great. I mean, it's so - it is really stupid, right? And it's so dumb. And it could have just as easily been, like, only those things, and I would have been fine with it, right? But it's also, like, heartfelt and deep and inquisitive. Did you see "Swiss Army Man"?

HARRIS: Yes.

YU: Yes.

HARRIS: "Swiss Army Man," for folks who may not remember - this was the Daniels' previous feature film. It was their debut. And that one starred Daniel Radcliffe. And I forget who the other...

YU: Paul Dano.

HARRIS: Paul Dano.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yes, yes, yes. Daniel Radcliffe was a farting corpse (laughter).

YU: Plays a farting corpse (laughter).

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: So we've got some similar, like, body humor going on here.

LIMBONG: Yeah. It hits all those same notes of, like, heartfelt and, like, gross-out, 'cause in "Swiss Army Man," he's not just a farting corpse. He also has, like, a boner that points, like - acts as a compass, if you remember.

HARRIS: I totally forgot about that.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: The farting corpse was the only thing I remembered.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: But how could I forget the boner?

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Yeah. And so you can expect the same level, the same grade of humor from this movie, just, like, ten times more often, I think. And I think it's great.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes. But like you said, it has heart still. Like, there's a lot going on. It's not just that. And I would say this is way more ambitious than what I remember the "Swiss Army Man" being. But, Mallory, how about you? What are your thoughts.

YU: Man, I loved this movie - like, wholeheartedly, 100% adored this movie. Like, I've been a big fan of the Daniels' work since I saw "Swiss Army Man." and I thought this was such an exciting progression of the sort of absurd, punchy humor that we saw in "Swiss Army Man" but still grounded in, you know, the reality of being human and being human today. I thought, you know, in "Swiss Army Man," it's like, Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. But it's also a story about kind of the weirdness, humiliation and also exhilaration of, like, living in a human body. And "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is similarly grounded in, like, something really authentic and relatable about mother-daughter experiences and family dynamics, especially in, like, an immigrant family. I loved the martial arts set pieces.

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: Obviously, Michelle Yeoh is a goddess, and I loved that this movie is basically an homage and a paean, a love letter to her and her career and everything that she's done. And she's finally kind of getting her dues. As a queer, mentally ill Asian daughter myself, I really vibed with the way that the mother-daughter relationship was portrayed here in all the kind of prickly complexity and nuance. There were just so many moments where I saw myself and my experience. And I loved it. And then also, it's, like, totally surrounded by this zany, weird, absurd world and humor. And there are set pieces that are so stupid...

(LAUGHTER)

YU: ...And are jaw-dropping and pants-dropping also, just to kind of give you an idea of where we're going here.

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: But there's something just so poignant and lovely about where the story goes that it's balanced and worth it.

HARRIS: Yeah. I definitely want to get to the sort of generational dynamics going on there. But, I mean, for me, what I really loved about this movie was just how unpredictable it was, even though after a while you sort of understand - it's a movie - it's a type of movie that teaches you how to watch it. And even though a lot of it eventually becomes familiar - I can think of plenty of shows or movies recently that have done the similar inter-dimensional take on things, whether it's "Russian Doll" or "Into The Spider-Verse." Like, this is a thing that's been percolating in the ether for a while now, but it's done in such a different way, in a unique way.

And I kept coming back to "Jackie Brown" because - hear me on it. Because they're very different - they're very different movies, like very different modes. But when I think of what Quentin Tarantino did for Pam Grier and how yes, she had been a star, a blaxploitation star, but she hadn't quite had, like, that meaty, juicy role that really treated her seriously as an actress, as a performer. I see what the Daniels here are doing with Michelle Yeoh and also with Ke Huy Quan, who I'm sad to say, I did not realize this until after the movie ended and I was doing research. I was like, wait, that's Short Round from...

LIMBONG: Oh.

HARRIS: ..."Indiana Jones."

YU: Yeah.

HARRIS: And throughout the whole movie, I was like, his voice sounds so familiar.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: I feel like I've seen this guy before, but I couldn't place it in the middle of the theater. And he hasn't really worked much onscreen in the last 20 years or so. Like, this movie is giving both of them a chance to have, like, the roles that they haven't had, or at least Michelle Yeoh hasn't had in a Hollywood production. And so being able to see that - them both flourish and have this be able to do all of the martial arts stuff and have, like, a real dynamic between the relationship and figuring out how to make their relationship work, and then the odes to Wong Kar-wai and "In The Mood For Love" - there's, like, some beautiful shots in one of the dimensions that they go to that, like, evokes all the sumptuous beauty of a Wong Kar-wai film. Like, I loved all of the many, many layers to it and appreciated what this movie was doing for both of those actors and for every actor. I think every actor in this film is very much served, and there's no sort of small parts. They're all integral to what is going on.

YU: I think the Daniels are just really good at kind of balancing their sort of absurdist kind of tendencies and humor with a love to cinema. You know, when you're watching this movie, it's throwing so many different ideas at you, but it's also throwing so many homages, like inside jokes in references to films and martial arts movies and things that, to me, I see the roots and the foundations of movies that I grew up watching with my parents. And I can tell that there's so much love for movies and for filmmaking, and that sort of makes you feel like they're in conversation with you if you get it.

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: And I think this - is this the first time we've seen Michelle Yeoh play - I don't know how to describe it - like, a weak - like, she's - I think of her - right? - and I think of, like, a hard-ass, right? I think of somebody stern and stoic. And she's still kind of a hard-ass in this movie with - especially in her relationship with her daughter. But I think this is the first time I've ever seen her, like, not in control of, A, her emotions and, B, everything else around her, you know?

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: Yeah, and even her body, too. Like, I mean, the physical performances in this movie are so good because Michelle and Ke Huy Quan both have to kind of play characters with very different expertises, like physical expertises. And, like, Evelyn has to kind of go from being sort of a frumpy, everyday Chinese business lady to a martial arts master in, like, a split sort of second. And I think she does such a good job with that physicality. I was really impressed with how I could tell which multiverse we were in based on kind of the way that each person was moving.

HARRIS: Yeah, they really juggled that very well because there are moments where within one scene we're going through three, four different multiverses, and then there's all these other random characters. Like, I described it as a video game earlier on, and it is kind of like that in that there's all these different levels and challenges they have to face within each of those levels. But the style, the aesthetic, also the costuming, like, all of that sort of informs you of where you are at any given moment so that it's pretty easy to follow along, even when sometimes it's like tonal whiplash in the span of, like, 30 seconds.

LIMBONG: Imagine editing this movie.

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: Oh, my God.

LIMBONG: Editing this movie seems like a nightmare, dude.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Seriously.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: But let's get back to the generational aspect that you hinted at earlier, Mallory, because it's coming at a moment when we are having a lot of content right now about generational trauma. And when it got to the point in the climax where it was clearly becoming so much about that, and I had just seeing "Turning Red" like a couple of weeks before that, so it was, like, still very fresh in my mind. And on top of that, like I mentioned earlier, "Russian Doll" is coming back. So, like, I still appreciated it, but I'm curious to hear your take on it, Mallory, and how you related to that aspect of it.

YU: I mean, (laughter) similarly, like, I'm really glad that millennials, our kind of peers are now able to make movies about our parents and kind of process how generational trauma have shaped, like, our generation. But also, man, I have been on a run of movies about moms specifically.

HARRIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

YU: And it has been lovely. But also, I now have so much material for my therapist. I need a break.

(LAUGHTER)

YU: Like, it's hard. I can't get through all this material in, like, an hour. I think sometimes for immigrant children especially, it can be really hard for us to talk to our parents on kind of a deeper emotional level. It can also be really hard to see each other as, like, three-dimensional people rather than kind of the people that we expect or want them to be. So the divide between Joy and her mom, where I could see Joy kind of yearning for this connection with her mother and also being completely unsure of how to cross that divide and how to make her mother understand her and see her - like, I could really get that.

Growing up, I sometimes felt like my parents were only seeing the version of me that they wanted to see. And then as a kid, I was also aware that I wasn't able to see my parents as three-dimensional people with lives before they were my parents, right? And there's a yearning that comes with wanting to cross that divide. But there's also sometimes anger and resentment. And I really appreciated the way that this threaded that needle of how vastly cultural differences can really affect a child's relationship with their parents. And then there's also a lovely message about, you know, understanding and acceptance of the flaws in the people around you that I really found poignant and lovely.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I think that's why I think it's so great that they included the grandfather character...

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...Played by James Hong, who - I was just - before, I was looking at his IMDB. My guy puts in work.

YU: Oh, yeah.

LIMBONG: This dude's, like, resume is...

HARRIS: He's in his 90s now, I think, right?

LIMBONG: Oh, brother. Yeah. I know.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah (laughter).

LIMBONG: And he's still working, dude.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: But his character adds so much to Evelyn, you know, and sort of this relationship because, like, when we talk about, like, intergenerational divides, you see her relationship with her father isn't great either, right?

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: And, you know, Mallory, like you were saying, like, seeing your parents as three-dimensional people - it's almost nice to be like, ha, you're just as [expletive] up as I am. You know what I mean?

YU: Yeah.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) It's like, you guys - you had it just as hard, huh?

HARRIS: I will say, like, the thing that I appreciated the most about that storyline or that dynamic was the fact that, like, it resolves itself but not in the way I was quite expecting it to, and also the fact, like you said - the grandfather is involved. So it's not just intergenerational, but it's also - it's not just a lineage of mothers and grandmothers, but, like, it's like, the grandfather plus the daughter and then the granddaughter. Like, I liked seeing that sort of mixture because there is a different texture and a different sort of interaction that you have across genders and generations. And I appreciated seeing that.

I think my favorite aspect of it all was really more so when it came down to Evelyn. It's a film about regret in many ways and the paths not chosen. And so seeing what her life could have been like in these other iterations, to me, and the way in which it really sort of digs into that sense of regret and how you deal with that and then how that affects the people around you in whatever dimension you're in - for a movie with not a farting corpse, but, like, there are dildos. There are all these things that are happening.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: There's a long reference to "Ratatouille" that's hilarious. Like...

YU: Oh, my God.

HARRIS: ...It's still, like, by the end of it I was like, oh, my goodness, I'm crying a little bit (laughter).

YU: Yeah.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

YU: I think every immigrant kid can - with parents who are ESL speakers - can kind of relate to the strange words that your parents come up with when they can't remember the actual English word, like Raccaccoonie (ph). I could totally hear one of my relatives making this mistake and being like, yeah, whatever. It doesn't matter. It's the same thing, right?

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: It's still a rodent on your head.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Yeah. I called a bedspread a bed spray until college 'cause that's what my mom called it. And I was like, what do you mean? It's a bed spray. Like, what...

(LAUGHTER)

YU: There's a tiny exchange in the middle of the larger conversation that Joy and Evelyn are having, where Joy at one point corrects a pronoun that Evelyn has used wrongly, has misused. And Evelyn goes, he, she, him. She kind of gets confused. And she's like, you know I always mess that up. In Chinese, we only have one word for this. And I have - I mean, I've literally had that exact exchange, almost word for word, with my mom. And it was pretty much the first time that I have really seen that particular aspect - funny and kind of frustrating aspect of being the child of an immigrant.

And it was one that made me think like Daniel Kwan gets it. Like, Daniel has had this experience, and he's kind of communicating with me. To me, it's indicative of the kind of representation that I want to see - you know, these teeny-tiny moments where, you know, someone gets it. Someone has had that experience that speaks to you and that maybe is very personal, but also, a great many people can relate to this idea.

LIMBONG: It was - I don't know if this is, like, short-sighted on my part, but I was like, oh, no, I thought it was just me.

YU: Yeah.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) You know what I mean? I was like, I thought that was just my dad.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Yeah. This is definitely, I think, the type of film that will resonate with a lot of people. And I actually saw it at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and the cast was there, the Daniels were there. And, you know, I am not Asian myself, but most of the - or, like, a lot of the audience was. And I could just feel there were all these moments that, like, I might not have caught, but I could hear the understanding or the, like, knowing - like, oh, yeah, I know this experience. I know this.

YU: Like, you can hear the people around you - like, ah, I get it.

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: Yeah.

HARRIS: We've talked a little bit about the generational aspect in terms of, like, being first-generation, second-generation immigrant. But, like, how does it relate to you when we're also talking about the fact that Joy is queer, and her mom is not exactly...

YU: Not exactly comfortable?

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: ...Engaging with it?

LIMBONG: On board? Yeah.

YU: I mean, it hit really close to home for me. I think at first, it was difficult for my mom as a religious person but also as a Chinese person to kind of understand my queerness and where it was coming from. And I could tell she accepted it, but it was difficult and awkward for her to talk about. And I really felt there was something really authentic in the way that Joy and Evelyn were kind of bumping up against each other and not talking about queerness but talking around it. While I knew that my mom loved and accepted me and my queerness, it still hurt that it was difficult and awkward for her to talk about with me, that I could tell that there was some hesitation in the way that she, you know, referenced my partner or my dating life or whatever.

Part of what helped the both of us was that we were physically distant. You know, I was living in D.C.; my mom is in LA. So I didn't have to have her discomfort in my face all the time, like, while she was getting used to it. She could work through it on her own. I think if we had been more on top of each other, like Joy and Evelyn, I could really see our relationship becoming strained because, from Joy's perspective, she's like, this is who I am; I just want you to see this part of me and accept it and be OK with it and be comfortable with it. And for Evelyn, it's like she's trying but not really trying because she doesn't really know how to try in that way. I could really see myself feeling like Joy, and it really kind of helped me think about the weird feelings that I've had about that kind of difficult, awkward period with my parents. I found it to be really profound. I liked that it kind of resolved itself, but it didn't resolve itself. Like, you can tell that there's still work to be done at the end of this movie.

HARRIS: Yeah.

YU: You know, I never - my grandparents died before I really came out, and they never got to meet my partner or, really, that part of me. I don't know. There was maybe, like, some wish fulfillment here at the end of this movie for me as a queer person who is maybe still figuring out my queerness and my Chinese identity as it relates to my family.

LIMBONG: How did you think it worked as it intersected with the sort of nihilist stuff? You know what I mean?

YU: Yeah.

LIMBONG: It was all, like, wrapped up in this, like - I was like, is this about, like, depression, or is this also - you know, is this about, like, queer depression, or is it just, like, a sort of, like, resigned - like, I don't know. How did you sort of wrap your head around it?

YU: I mean, it's all wrapped up together, right? So a lot - so much of the frustration is because of the queerness, right? But then there's also the general overarching, like, existential despair that I think many millennials tend to feel nowadays...

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Yes (laughter).

YU: ...And the nihilism of, like, we weren't meant to be everywhere all at once. And I think sometimes living on Twitter and living on the internet and social media makes it feel very much like you're supposed to be everywhere, everything, all at once. And being queer is kind of a big part of that. Like, it's like this whole big, jumbled mess. And I think the movie really did a good job of showing how jumbled and messy it is without telling you what it's supposed to feel like.

HARRIS: Yeah, I'm glad you brought up that sort of nihilistic mode, Andrew, 'cause that was definitely the part that I loved the most, was sort of, like, the Nietzschean questions that were being thrown out here. And like Mallory said, they don't tell you how to feel, but they are throwing these ideas and so many other ideas out there just for you to sort of ponder. And even though there are so many ideas, they don't - it never feels jumbled in a way. At least to me, it didn't feel jumbled. Andrew, what did you think of that aspect of it?

LIMBONG: It's incredible how heart on its sleeve it was and yet how not corny it was.

HARRIS: Yeah. Exactly.

LIMBONG: Like, they nailed - existing is hard and difficult, but it is worth doing. It pulls it off with all of its underlying metaphor - I guess is the way to be, like, posi (ph) vibes without being cringe.

YU: Positive vibes without being cringe - that's a really difficult line to draw - and then also, wrapped up in a very surreal kind of presentation. I loved it, man.

HARRIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: And you can tell us what you think about "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, we'll be talking about what's making us happy this week.

And now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what's making us happy. Andrew, let's start with you. How are you feeling happy this week?

LIMBONG: OK, so I've been on this app called TikTok, right?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

LIMBONG: And I found there this game. It's called Q-Less, right? This guy named Tom - he made up this game called Q-Less. And he has this, like, TikTok page about it. But it's, like, a physical game, right? And so what it is is it's, like, 12 die with different letters on them. And you roll them, and then you have to piece together, like - it's like a word Solitaire game. So you have to make, like, a crossword out of all the random letters that you come up with. It has taken over my life. I, like...

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: But in a good way in that, like, where I used to spend my lunch break looking at my phone, eating my house sandwich or whatever, I now spend it, like, eating my house sandwich and, like, playing this puzzle game. And it's been so relaxing, I think, and so fun. And, like, actual puzzles I'm not very good at, I find frustrating, and then I end up giving up. But, like, these little, short games has just been, like - been a delight. And so shout out my guy Tom at Q-Less - Q dash less - L-E-S-S.

HARRIS: Ah, OK.

YU: Q dash less. OK.

HARRIS: Thank you, Andrew. Mallory, what's making you happy?

YU: So what's making me happy this week is a conversation that Juana Summers did while she was guest hosting ATC on "Sailor Moon." So March is the 30th anniversary of "Sailor Moon's" debut in Japan.

HARRIS: Oh, wow.

YU: It debuted March 7, 1992. So yeah, millennials, were old now.

HARRIS: I know. Oh, my goodness.

(LAUGHTER)

YU: So she talked to fandom editor at The Mary Sue, Briana Lawrence, about "Sailor Moon" and kind of the impact of the show and why it still endures today. And the conversation is just so lovely and fun. The two of them have such a good rapport. And Brianna talks about revisiting "Sailor Moon" as an adult. And there's a conversation here about the emotions that we allow in girls. And, you know, there's also the idea of queerness in "Sailor Moon" and how it was censored in the English version and the kind of impact that that had on those of us who were only watching the English dubs, which censored a queer couple and made them into cousins.

HARRIS: Oh, I had no idea.

YU: You know, again, as a queer person, when I was younger, it would have been revolutionary for me to see those particular two characters in love and not like, oh, we're just really close cousins, right?

(LAUGHTER)

YU: I would highly recommend it. There's a lot of great sound. It's "Why Sailor Moon Is Beloved By So Many, 30 Years Ago" (ph) on npr.org.

HARRIS: Awesome. Thank you so much for that, Mallory. So I'm going to bring it back to games for a moment after Andrew talked about his game. I have recently become obsessed with The Box Office Game, which is based on an idea by the "Blank Check Podcast" guys, Griffin Newman and David Sims. So basically, every day, there's a new set of five movies you have to guess from a particular weekend in the past. And they're the top five box office films. So they'll give you a couple of clues, like how it was distributed. And then they'll give you, like, what it grossed. But then in order to figure it out or if you don't know it already, they can reveal clues, like who was starring in it, what the genre is. But each of them is worth a number of points that you are going to lose if you reveal it.

And so it's a little bit complicated, but I really enjoy it, even though it's very hard for me and I'm not doing very well. My streak is very bad (laughter). But, sometimes, I can remember, oh, I remember this year, and I remember that weekend for whatever reason, even though it was 15, 20 years ago. I bet it's "Mean Girls." and then it's "Mean Girls." You know, it's cool. So I highly recommend it. it's The Box Office game. You can Google box office game, or it's boxofficega.me. And that's what's making me happy this week.

If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, you can subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. Mallory Yu, Andrew Limbong, thanks to you both for being here and helping me parse out many, many feelings about "Everything Everywhere All At Once."

YU: Oh, it's amazing to be here.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) No problem. It's been great.

HARRIS: This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. HELLO COME IN provides the music you're bobbing your head to right now. And special thanks to Daniel Shukin for his help on this episode. And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris. And we'll see you all next week, when we'll be recapping this year's Grammy Awards.

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