Song Diaries: Tongue by R.E.M. (1994)

A story about friendship, femininity, and John Cusack.

Song Diaries looks back on songs and the memories they carry for the writer.

Ugly girls know their fate – anybody can get laid

I hear the opening piano chords and …ah yes, I think to myself.

It is 2015, I am nineteen years old, a sophomore in college and my best friend just moved with her family to Europe.

Before we met in high school some three years back, I was beyond reserved. I dreaded talking to classmates and ate lunch alone below a collection of shading trees (I insisted on being a romanticized cliché).

My first week of school, I was in my psychology class (I wanted to be a shrink to help out troubled youths – yeah), when our teacher made us students gather round in a circle and answer the following icebreaker:

“If you could go anywhere in time, where would you go?”

Within those few minutes, I really thought about it and when it was my turn to speak, I said: “1988 – to see the Stone Roses live in Manchester.” No one said a thing, and I felt enormously embarrassed for not saying something smarter like “to go way back and be a suffragette,” or something along those lines. The rest of the circle continued sharing their answers after me, as I continued obsessing over my stupid answer. Two days later, my schedule was changed; I was no longer in the course.

Five months later, a self-assured and sharp-looking girl in overalls approached me during virtual P.E. lab (don’t ask) to tell me she heard me in class on that day and she liked the Stone Roses too.  Who wears overalls to school? Cool…

We soon became very close, talking plenty about our favorite band (Blur) and psychoanalyzing each other’s biggest flaws. Turns out all our issues come from our parents – I know…

After three years of friendship, it felt like we had known each other for a lifetime. Her subsequent leaving kickstarted a response within me to socialize with everyone I met and really “put myself out there”.  I knew it was possible that I depended on her too much, but she meant so much to me that I really did not need any other friends. I did not see the point in overtly advertising myself. Shouldn’t things just happen? After all, we became friends because I was “myself”. So perhaps, I did not have to actively shop for some new companionship. Maybe this is how I can find someone like her, I thought to myself. And so, I tried my best to actually introduce myself to people I found somewhat interesting.

During this time, I went through many short-lived friendships, some that could have ended sooner if I was not so scared to be the same loner from high school. All of a sudden, my loneliness became about something else entirely.

One day, a month before my friend moved away, I saw a young man at a library. Having recently watched the films High Fidelity (which coincidentally, is about a reclusive music snob who cannot deal with intimacy – ha) and Say Anything (where a sensitive romantic bro lands girl of his dreams), and lacking in the eyesight department, I saw a tall man with dark hair and broad shoulders from a distance and decided he looked just like Hollywood star John Cusack. It was more than that though. I truly felt like I was caught under some weird spell, which makes no sense to me now and is frankly quite embarrassing.

I was so moved by this shoulder-spotting that I immediately texted my friend, the conversation going something like this:

Me: I saw a boy today who looked like John Cusack :-0

Friend: OMG. Get it, girl.

Me: Haha, nope. But nice to look at…

– End of conversation –

If you have not listened to much by R.E.M. (aside from their staple supermarket hits), this song may not the most fitting introduction to them or the most characteristic of their style. However, it is unique to their catalog and has played a huge part in the life of a young 22-year-old woman you don’t really know. So… read along.

Funnily enough, this young’s man name was not too far off from “John”Which in my brain was some kind of sign towards something. The typical moody John Cusack characters and the fake John Cusack were not so different, both being extremely tortured and irritating. I could never enjoy Say Anything like I used to.

Looking back, I am not sure what my end goal was. I guess maybe he would have shown up outside my window blasting Peter Gabriel out of a boombox? But, did I really want that? Whatever it was (a late blooming, boredom, trying to relive high school “the right way”), it was powerful enough to get me to obsess over it for months until we finally spoke.

When I passively listen to Tongue, it sounds like the mid-nineties sitcom I have always longed to live in. A universe where I am friends with Lindsay Weir and Angela Chase and somehow a young John Cusack shows up and is not a terrible guy at all (ha!). The second I hear the lyrics, however, I hear what I was really living. I was looking to be fulfilled through some romantic fantasy, only to realize I was only there to be used.

“I was just trying to sing like a girl,” Michael Stipe confessed while speaking to Rolling Stone. “The ballad, heavy on piano and falsetto, is written from a female point of view: the unhappy complaint of a girl who feels like an unattractive “last ditch lay,” said the magazine.

Untitled design-5
Dream Team: Me and my fictional squad.

My 19-year-old self’s obsession with R.E.M. in the year 2015 meant that I obviously looked up the background to this song. Michael Stipe’s straining falsetto is his attempt to sing the words as the young girl who feels unattractive. I – being a young girl and narcissist-in-the-making who also happened to regularly feel that way – naturally took this to mean the song was in fact, about me in some minuscule way. I am this girl, I would think to myself as it loudly played out through my earbuds and I dramatically gazed out the dirty window of a sweaty Metrorail car.

That year, I wrote a short story called Tongue for a creative writing course I was required to take. For someone as bashful as myself, it was a candidly shameful thing to read out loud to the whole class. The tale of me obsessing over someone because they looked like John Cusack (of all people) or “Edward Norton” as I decided to write in the story (better choice in both fact and fiction), going out with them, and -finally- being terribly disappointed. I was clearly late to the 14-year-old hormonal phase every one of my friends went through with all the boys and stuff. I liked boys, just not real ones. Only the pretty ones on magazines and music videos, and not just boys, either.

But Tongue is more than just the story of a girl wanting to date John Cusack because she has lost her friend.

Tongue is how pathetic I felt that same year after a Valentine’s Day party where I got so intoxicated (and truly high for the first time) that I let a man I would never speak to in any other setting attempt to French-kiss me, among other things. Mind you, I could barely walk, but the feeling of a disgustingly cold tongue poking into my mouth was so sobering that I stumbled down from the top of that bunk bed (how did I get myself up there?), grabbed my equally intoxicated best friend, left the party, and walked back together to her house.

You want a door with a fire escape,
I want to tell you how much I hate this.

The girl wants to leave, but she stays anyway. She knows she will never find someone she really likes.

Tongue is an unsettling feeling. It is a boy asking you if you share your room with anyone an hour into your first date and not asking you about who you are or where your interests lie. It is feeling unwanted, disposable, unworthy. Unworthy of what? You’re not quite sure. It is feeling guilty for allowing yourself to become this person, because you are not that girl. You are way better than that, you do not need a boy. But it does not matter how smart you think you are, in the eyes of many men you were a soft fleshy sculpture (with ears that worked!)

Tongue is being shut up with a kiss when you finally speak after being lectured on why ghosts are totally real. It is going out with another boy the following after to forget the previous one, but then realizing he is one of those who love Animal Collective and complains about a street salsa band not playing rhythms that are “complex enough”.

It is being a young woman confused by the weight placed on getting sexual attention from men, when you do not even want such attention, and you are unsure if it is because you are allowed to not desire that or because there is something really wrong with you. Yet, you still feel like have something to prove to yourself, to other girls, and to the world. You do not even want to be with someone, but you feel this emptiness in your chest that you cannot explain. It is missing the love from the one person you felt closest to and hoping someone else can make it go away – a stranger, a boy.  You’re not a woman until you’re with a man. So the only way to be with one is by romanticizing them until you want them badly enough to let yourself be used by them. Isn’t that disgusting?

Tongue is my late coming-of-age, my female awakening. An experiment resulting in grave disappointment but also in the immeasurable reassurance that I, alone, was fine. No boys, no shallow friends, just me, happily eating alone by a pretty tree.

Certain details from this story were modified for the sake of the author’s dignity and the identity of fellow parties involved.

If you’d like to share a Song Diary of your own, contact us at dulcetzine@gmail.com

Author: Pat

Patricia Cárdenas is a writer, wannabe garden mom, and 80's enthusiast from Miami. She dreams of eventually moving somewhere colder where she can wear lots of sweaters, adopt a fluffy pet, and just drink lots of rooibos tea.

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