For Miley Cyrus, her tongue, even more than her twerking, has become her trademark, for better or blech. Put a camera or a crowd in front of her and the former Disney star just can't keep that lolling licker inside her maw, even when it comes to demolition equipment.
So fine, Miley, you have our attention. And that wayward tongue is telling us a lot.
We see a 21-year-old who is no longer a girl but not quite a woman of the world, to paraphrase another controversy-courting poplet, the poet Britney Spears. With a saucy serpentine flick, Cyrus is both brat and seductress. And we the public — both turned off and titillated — can't stop tweeting about this curious emblem of 21st century popular culture: silly, slightly disrespectful and unleashed by a powerful artist who knows how to take full advantage of it.
She's not the first to try such shenanigans. The rock-star tongue has been flapping out there for decades. At one point, especially as the iconic logo for the Rolling Stones, it was a symbol of cool, of rebellion, of winkingly subversive sex appeal. For Gene Simmons of Kiss, it was all about pure backstage lust; it might as well have been forked.
Now the rock-star tongue represents youth-driven, social-media culture, everyone desperate to be noticed, to test boundaries, to take selfies that stand out from all those others.
Miley offers a simple explanation for so much tongue.
"I just stick my tongue out because I hate smiling in pictures," Cyrus told Rolling Stone. "It's so awkward. It looks so cheesy. Now people expect it — like, 'Put your tongue out!' "
And so she does.
Over and over again.
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Whatever the reasons, Cyrus, easily the most talked-about celebrity of 2013, has made her tongue one of the most provocative images in current pop culture. MTV named her its best artist of the year, but rest assured it wasn't only for ubiquitous No. 1 song We Can't Stop.
Even ABC News, hopefully on a slow news day, reported a straight-faced story on the hue of the pop star's mouth: "When a patient's tongue is covered in a grayish-white coating, it's a sign that patient has taken antibiotics that have killed some of the natural bacteria in the mouth, allowing fungus to settle in."
Her tongue also had a pivotal starring role in her Wrecking Ball video, the most viewed of 2013, with 371 million global hits. Cyrus' gamboling about naked on the titular sphere wasn't the only reason so many of us watched (and watched and watched); she also licked a sledgehammer for no apparent reason.
But maybe there actually was a reason for that sledgehammer licking (which is easily the weirdest sentence I've ever written).
"(Sticking your tongue out) starts when we were children," says Vincent Slomin, a retired clinical psychologist from St. Petersburg. "We would put out our tongues as a way to snuff or put a person off."
When we get older, the tongue becomes a sexual symbol. And there's obviously a lot of that going on with Cyrus, who is famously clothes-averse. For the Disney star, Slomin says, "now she's really into Fantasyland."
Sex aside — which is not so easy considering what Cyrus did to a foam finger at the MTV Video Music Awards this year — there's also the matter of her celebrity and her desperate desire to hold on to it.
"This is all about 'how do I get attention from other people,' " says Mark Durand, a professor of psychology at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "This is all about 'Look at me!' In our society, you have to go pretty far out there to stand out."
If you've seen Miley's tongue, well, it goes pretty far out there.
But sooner or later, we'll get tired of the tongue, and as a matter of adaptability, so will Cyrus. The twerking will cease, too.
"Like Madonna and Lady Gaga, she's going to have to move on and do something else outrageous," Durand says. "The tongue will be irrelevant."
Miley's not licked just yet. Not even close. For now, that tongue will continue its torment and titillation. But sooner or later, the only thing coming out of her mouth will be hits.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.