John Powers

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.

Powers covers film and politics for Vogue and Vogue.com. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper's BAZAAR, The Nation, Gourmet, The Washington Post, The New York Times and L.A. Weekly, where he spent twelve years as a critic and columnist.

A former professor at Georgetown University, Powers is the author of Sore Winners, a study of American culture during President George W. Bush's administration.

He lives in Pasadena, California, with his wife, Sandi Tan.

In the fall of 1989, I was walking down a London street when someone handed me a flier that asked, "Should Rushdie Die?" The following afternoon, I headed over to the Royal Albert Hall to hear that question answered by a renowned Islamic scholar.

Between mass tourism and the Internet, it's never been easier to learn about other cultures. Yet we often stay on the surface. Watching the Olympics opening ceremony a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much of what was presented as quintessential Britishness came from pop culture — James Bond and Mary Poppins and the chorus to "Hey Jude." Although Britain had a global empire not that long ago, the show's director, Danny Boyle, grasped that the world's image of his green and pleasant land now largely derives from movies and songs.

A couple of months ago, I visited Beijing, and like so many before me, I was stunned by how hypercapitalist Communist China has become — the hundreds of glossy highrises, the countless shops selling Prada and Apple, the traffic jams filled with brand new Audis. You felt you could be in L.A. or Tokyo — until you wanted some information. Then you discovered that Facebook was permanently blocked, certain words in Google searches always crashed your browser, and, as my wife joked, it was easier to buy a Rolls-Royce than a real newspaper. Here was a country at once booming — and repressive.

If you only knew about America from watching TV, the last few months might lead you to think that women here wield enormous political power. First you had Game Change, the story of Sarah Palin's attempt to become vice president. Then you had Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus's character has accomplished just that. Now comes Political Animals, a new USA network series about a strong female secretary of state who I suspect even a Martian would realize is based on Hillary Clinton.

A lot of stand-up comedians make us laugh, but only a handful, like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen or Richard Pryor, actually change the way that comedy is done. It's too early to be sure, but another one of them may be Louis C.K., the paunchy, balding, ginger-haired comic who's something of a quiet radical. He has one of those comic talents that's at its best when it isn't worried about being funny.

If anyone in Hollywood wears his idealism like a boutonniere, it's Aaron Sorkin. As The West Wing made clear, Sorkin loves telling stories about principled individuals — especially liberals — struggling with institutions that might compromise their integrity.

One of my favorite professors, the late Ian Watt, taught that there were four great myths of modern individualism: Faust, Don Juan, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. This always got me wondering which, if any, pop-culture heroes might endure in the same way. James Bond? Luke Skywalker? The Avengers? C'mon. In fact, there's only one who I feel sure will last — Sherlock Holmes.

When you hear the words "Russian novel," you probably picture something as big and heavy as an anvil. Yet ever since the fall of communism, we've seen the ascent of Russian novelists who are shorter-winded and jauntier.

I think everyone can agree that the Republican Party's search for its presidential nominee has been a long, strange trip. For me, one of the strangest things about it is that, after all this time, I barely know who's running Mitt Romney's, Rick Santorum's and Newt Gingrich's campaigns. You see, over the past 30 years, political strategists have gone from being shadowy figures to being celebrities in their own right.

There's a great moment in Tom Stoppard's play Jumpers when a husband tries to convince his wife that an election has been democratic. "I had a vote," he tells her, to which she replies, "It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting."

If you read the headlines, you know that the Mexican government is engaged in a long, deadly battle against the country's astonishingly powerful drug dealers, known as narcotraficantes or simply narcos. Hardly a day goes by without news of another shootout or massacre. Nearly 50,000 people have died in the 5-year-old drug war, the majority of them innocent citizens.

Over the past 30-odd years, we've grown used to thinking of Iran and the United States as enemies — from the Ayatollah Khomeini dubbing America "The Great Satan" to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which has led President Obama to spearhead international sanctions and some of his Republican rivals to talk of bombing Iran.

When I was 12, I was hooked on James Bond, both Ian Fleming's elegantly pulpy novels and the cartoonish movies they spawned. One day, my friend's older brother, who went to Harvard, tossed a paperback onto my lap and said, "Here's the real thing, kid."

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