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 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 (for a short time, "Kenneth" also became a term used for a clueless person). Rather had a good sense of humor about it and later appeared on the show, singing this with R.E.M. backing him.
Peter Buck remembered the experience in the liner notes for In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003: "I like Dan Rather. He's a fine newsman, an interesting person to talk to, and quite a bit nuttier than most of those media types (I consider that a good thing). That said, nothing in my rich and varied life prepared me for the experience of performing behind him as he 'danced' and 'sang' 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?'"
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.
Despite his painful ordeal, Mills notes this as "one of my favorite rockers in our canon, touching on pop culture and yet with balls" in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011.
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) and the acclaimed "Before" trilogy: Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013).
In the liner notes for the compilation album Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011, Stipe says he quoted the director "to aid in a fictional narrative that details a generational belly flop the size of Lake Michigan."
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.
The music video, directed by Peter Care, shows the band performing this song under multicolored flashing lights and is notable for debuting new looks for Michael Stipe, who shaved his head, and Mike Mills, who grew out his hair and decked himself out in a rhinestone suit borrowed from Gram Parsons.
Peter Buck also makes use of a special gift: the late Kurt Cobain's Fender Jag-Stang, which he plays upside-down because Cobain was left-handed.
This was featured on Friends in the episode "The One with Two Parts: Part 2" and on Beavis and Butt-Head in "Wet Behind the Rears," both in 1995. It was also used in the 1999 Martin Scorsese film Bringing Out the Dead, starring Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette.
This was the group's first song to debut at #1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.