MOUNTAINTOP, N.C. -- If opinions differ on Miley Cyrus' raunchy performance during MTV's recent Video Music Awards, on one thing we all can agree: Miley loves her tongue.
Throughout her lively exhibition, the 20-year-old former Disney starlet and erstwhile Hannah Montana was busy extending her gustatory hydrostat. It is a healthy tongue, indeed, and as tongues go, Cyrus is justified in being proud of hers.
She is also, apparently, proud of the results of her successful passage through puberty, which she felt compelled to share. Highlights of her nearly X-rated performance can be found easily enough. Readers of op-ed pages don't sign up for such descriptions when they seek opinion so I will spare the details except to mention that she was dressed in her undies and employed a foam finger with which to stimulate her performance partner, singer Robin Thicke.
"That was dope," Thicke tweeted afterward, which ostensibly was intended as an expression of praise rather than commentary on his "dance" partner. Apparently, Thicke's wife, actress Paula Patton, was also fine with the performance.
So who are we to protest? Who are we not to?
By far the best commentary -- in the picture-worth-a-thousand-words category -- was Rihanna's blank stare. Maybe she was thinking about her next dental appointment, but her expression of utter ennui spoke for me and doubtless others.
The usual critiques have included mockery of the right wing, which apparently includes anyone who cares about the culture we're providing our children. But other commentary makes one hopeful that we may be experiencing a broader desire for greater decorum. Call it post-modern prudery.
This is possibly a false hope, I concede, but there's some basis for imagining that the pendulum might find its way back toward civilization's center. Even by the dubious standards of MTV, Cyrus' performance was widely considered over the top. Or should we say, under the bottom? At a reported rate of 300,000 tweets per minute during the broadcast, viewers tweeted reactions that included shock and outrage. Not all, obviously, but enough to suggest a tipping point in America's slow decline into prurient voyeurism.
This is not the first offensive display -- and probably not even the worst. I pretend to no authority but have seen enough to know that MTV videos often resemble soft-porn mini-movies. Children marinating in a culture of online porn, sexting, rainbow parties and worse have little experience with other ways of relating emotionally.
Hard to believe, I know, but there was once a time when entertainers could get through a song without actually touching themselves. Or simulating fellatio, as Cyrus did. The impulse to replicate animal behavior -- now called "twerking" (the lascivious gyrating of one's fleshy extremities, according to my handy slang dictionary) -- now is mainstream entertainment. So inured have we become to grotesque behavior that even a congressman's sexting expeditions, at least initially, were blithely disregarded as errors in judgment.
The notion of community standards, meanwhile, has become quaintly irrelevant. How does one impose standards when almost every citizen has his own videocam and vast audiences can be summoned with a tweet? One doesn't. In free societies, the call to civilized behavior is strictly voluntary. Like democracy, it has to be willed by the people by community consent.
To that end, Cyrus inadvertently may have performed a public service. She didn't just tip the point, she forced the shark to jump the shark. There are only so many ways to shake one's booty, after all. Everybody has a tongue. Sex is universal. Given those circumstances, what's a girl gotta do to get attention?
The grinding image of Cyrus playing nasty while sticking out her tongue at the world ultimately was mostly sad and, as Rihanna so perfectly projected, kind of boring. Provocation for the sake of provocation is rarely provocative. And sex in the hands of a Cyrus-gone-wild has all the appeal of rutting season at the zoo. Whither mystery?
Even posing such a question usually invites dismissal as out-of-touch old-fogery. The planet's young, having discovered sex anew, have always imagined their predecessors as hopelessly square, forgetting until they themselves become parents that certain acts of passion were involved in their invitation to the circus. This time may be different. This time, even the young are offended.
Just possibly, America has had enough. When all things are permissible, then permissiveness loses its allure. And the pendulum always comes back.