A comparative look at the tongue phenomenon, from The Rolling Stones to Miley Cyrus
by Kate Sennert
In 1971, The Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers was released, marking the debut of its now iconic tongue logo. The album cover features a black-and-white photograph of a man’s crotch, highlighted by his hard penis barely veiled under tight-fitting trousers. The phrase ‘Sticky Fingers’ is stamped on the image with the last ‘s’ in ‘Fingers’ intersecting with the bulbous head of the man’s cock. The logo itself is splayed across the record sleeve—and 40 years later, over innumerable t-shirts, posters, and other merch.
“The tongue was to represent the band’s anti-authoritarian attitude, Mick’s mouth and the obvious sexual connotations,” explained the logo’s designer, John Pasche. His original sketch is now part of the permanent collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In an official statement the museum asserts, “the design perfectly encapsulated Mick Jagger’s sensuous lips and the band’s rebelliousness.”
This beloved and celebrated icon is not only synonymous with The Rolling Stones, but also an attitude: provocative, defiant, seductive. All the things a great pop star, like Mick Jagger, epitomizes. Today another well-known name in music has made this gesture her signature, yet for some reason the world thinks it’s a lot less cool. That is, of course, Miley Cyrus.
Like Jagger, Cyrus seems intent on causing a stir. She too wears tight, revealing clothing, gyrates on stage, dabbles in androgyny, and generally eschews notions of polite behavior. But instead of being lauded for nonconformity, Cyrus has mostly been criticized—in particular, by other women. Even her mother, Tish Cyrus, who is also her manager, purportedly gets “really, really mad” when she darts out her tongue in lieu of smiling.
To understand the phenomenon that is ‘Miley’s tongue’, and its accompanying backlash, some context is required. Cyrus began her career in show business not in a rock band but on the Disney Channel. She was the child star of Hannah Montana, a show about a young songstress who walked the line between regular girl and pop music sensation. As the daughter of real-life country music legend Billy Ray Cyrus, it was hardly a surprise when she began recording her own successful solo albums.
Three years after ending her Disney contract, Cyrus sang her hit track “We Can’t Stop” at MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards (VMAs), followed by a salacious duet with the male singer-songwriter Robin Thicke. Among the many things that shocked viewers about Cyrus’ behavior that night was the omnipresence of her tongue. “Put your f–king tongue in your mouth!” squawked Kelly Osbourne, daughter of Ozzy and a friend of Cyrus, as reported in Britain’s Daily Mail. The New York Daily News accused her of “lewdly thrusting out her tongue” on stage. On Twitter her appendage was likened to that of a reptile’s and a dog’s.
Other things that made Cyrus’ performance notorious that night included twerking (a sexually suggestive dance style borrowed from New Orleans’ hip-hop culture), stripping down to nude-colored latex panties, rubbing her derriere against Thicke’s pelvis, and stroking her own with a giant foam finger.
We all know what happened next: the world waved its finger back. Camille Paglia, writing in Time, called heract “cringingly unsexy,” explicitly contrasting it to the kind of performance for which Mick Jagger is known. On the Today show, actress Brooke Shields, who played Cyrus’ mother on Hannah Montana, described the performance as “desperate,” adding, “[my] children can’t watch that.” She joked from the perspective of her TV mom role, “Where did I go wrong?”
Some outcry over Cyrus’ antics was to be expected. For those who knew and loved her as Hannah Montana, this more grownup, sexualized version of Miley Cyrus was not an easy pill to swallow. But in the days that followed, it seemed the whole country had jumped on the slut-shaming bandwagon. And nothing better symbolized what a slut she was than that tongue sticking out of her big, wide mouth.
Before shedding her Disney image, Cyrus was occasionally caught wagging her tongue for cameras on the red carpet. Those instances were infrequent, though, and she was just a kid. Until she wasn’t anymore. A year prior to the VMAs debacle, Cyrus shaved the sides of her head into a tomboyish ‘do. “Never felt more me in my whole life,” she tweeted after cleaving her long, girly locks. Her clothing choices became noticeably more edgy and urban. She sported blinged-out chains around her neck. Perhaps the biggest transition was in her music: instead of making country-inspired pop, she recorded an album produced by some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Hanna Montana this was not.
Around this time, Miley’s tongue began showing up everywhere. In photo shoots, in music videos, on Instagram and as the subject of innumerable memes, her tongue could not be ignored. In a 2013 interview, Rolling Stone asked her to explain the gesture. She replied, “I just stick my tongue out because I hate smiling in pictures. It’s so awkward. It looks so cheesy. Now people expect it, like, ‘Put your tongue out!’ It’s just easier that way. Taking pictures is so embarrassing. But there’s also something about it that I think is cool. Every other girl is so serious—like, this is my moment on the red carpet, I’m in my ball gown, looking pretty. There’s something empowering about what I’m doing right now. Especially having ‘short hair don’t care,’ I think it’s empowering for girls. Because there’s not one thing that defines what beauty is.”
Having spent a lifetime in front of the camera, Cyrus knows a lot about the public gaze. She knows what it expects of her and what it doesn’t want to see. Just as her character on Hannah Montana yearned to be a regular girl, the real Miley Cyrus desires an authentic self. Whether she is successful at achieving that is not the point. What’s interesting about her sticking out her tongue, shaving her head, and twerking in front of millions is precisely that it’s cringingly unsexy. It’s sloppy. It’s unladylike. Cyrus might not know who she is yet, and it’s possible that her ‘real’ self is someone others won’t like, but instead of letting the gaze paralyze her in this coming-of-age vulnerable state, she’s working out the kinks in front of the world, unapologetically. She’s throwing the gaze back at the public and saying, “No, not that. But what about this?”
One doesn’t have to like Miley Cyrus to appreciate what her tongue tells us about the culture in which we live. Finally, a female pop star can walk down the red carpet and do something besides smile. She can sell millions of albums and not be the subject of every man’s wildest fantasies. But she will still be the target of diabolical hatred by a large segment of the population. She will be called a ‘bad influence’ and told to keep her tongue in her mouth, where it belongs.
In the early days of Mick Jagger’s career, his tongue snaked out of his mouth and it became the stuff of rock n’ roll history. It was his middle finger to the world, but softer. It could be worn on a t-shirt. How we remember Miley’s tongue depends partially on her talent and the endurance of her music. It will also depend on whether women in pop music can be more than sex objects who conform or else. In Miley’s case, a lot more than a t-shirt logo is at stake.