This song is about an incident that took place on October 4, 1986 when the CBS news anchor Dan Rather was attacked on a New York City sidewalk by a crazed man yelling "Kenneth, what is the frequency." The man turned out to be William Tager, who was caught after he killed a stagehand outside of the Today show studios on August 31, 1994. Tager, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison, said he was convinced the media was beaming signals into his head, and that he was on a mission to determine their frequencies.
When Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics, Tager had not yet been identified as Rather's assailant. He wrote the song after becoming intrigued by the case and the media reaction to it, calling it "The premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century."
After this song came out, "What's the frequency, Kenneth" became a catchphrase and was a running joke on The David Letterman Show. Rather had a good sense of humor about it and later appeared on the show, singing this with R.E.M. backing him. For a shot time, "Kenneth" became a term used for a clueless person.
There is a song by Game Theory on their 1987 album Lolita Nation called "Kenneth, what's the Frequency?" It was produced by Mitch Easter, who was R.E.M.s producer for Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning. Coincidence? (thanks, Joel - Arlington, VA)
Lead singer Michael Stipe says this is an attack on the media, who overanalyze things they don't understand.
The song slows down at the end because of bassist Mike Mills. They noticed he was in pain, but everyone followed him and finished the track. After they were done, Mills was taken to the hospital and it was discovered he had appendicitis. They never got back to redoing the song.
The line, "Richard said, 'Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy,'" refers to Richard Linklater, director of Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993). More recently, he directed Waking Life (2001).
This was the first single released from the album, which indicated the harder edge that R.E.M. took on Monster, their ninth album.
This single was the first piece of music to be released by R.E.M. that included a lyric sheet. The first R.E.M. album to include printed lyrics was Up, from 1999.