August 25, 2007
Not too long after Monster came out, I decided that “Tongue” and “Crush With Eyeliner” were ideally suited to accompanying the feeling of having a crush on someone. The latter is a bit obvious — the title and the lyrics are kind of a dead giveaway — but “Tongue” was more of an intuitive thing. The lyrics clearly refer to sexuality, sure, but it was really all about the way the coy, playful piano and organ parts seemed to be flirting with one another in the way they mingled in the track. The other elements — light percussion, intermittent and nearly subliminal guitar chords — shuffle awkwardly in the back of the arrangement, nervous but hopeful, like wallflowers on the sidelines at a school dance. To this day, I can’t hear the song without wanting to make out with someone.
Of course, this is all very ironic. “Tongue” is sung from the point of a woman — Michael Stipe was very keen on pointing this out on the Monster tour, frequently noting that “this song has tits” — who has grown tired and bitter of being someone’s “last ditch lay.” She’s trying to summon the self-respect and forthrightness necessary to call it off, but she keeps getting sucked in thanks to an unfortunate mixture of loneliness and passivity. She’s disappointed by her actions, entirely removed from the moment, and suspicious of her partner’s half-hearted methods of seduction and attempts to give her pleasure. Her acquiescence is basically a foregone conclusion, and she’s convinced that her suitor is aware of that, so she can’t help but to resent his efforts and question the sincerity of his attraction to her. She’s a very sympathetic character, so it’s tempting to take her word for it, and that the guy is just using her because she’s so easy, but the more I hear the song, I get the sense that she’s projecting her self-loathing on this guy.