What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

Album: Monster (1994)
Charted: 9 21
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  • 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."

    Tager got out of jail in 2010.
  • 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? >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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.

Comments: 18

  • Willofnc from North Carolina This article from 1997 seem to do the best to explain the whole “what’s the frequency Kenneth?”situation. Not sure it has much to do with the song:
  • Madcaplaughs79 from Ohio Violent Green was/is a band that formed in 1993 in Seattle. So, no, he does say "you wore a shirt/ of Violent Green "
  • Apesbrain from UsaI think the whole Dan Rather connection, while true, is a red herring. The song is a eulogy spoken by a grieving parent to a teenage child who has suicided. Read the lyrics with this in mind and see what you think. "You wore our expectations like an armored suit." Sad, but amazing song from one of their best albums.
  • Dan.t from Quarantine Isn't it "You wanna shout it violent-ly" in place of shirts violent green. I read About the Dan rather attack but the song is also a about the angst in the younger generation (in the 1990's). Sure, a loud florescent green shirt could be described as "violent" but it just doesn't sound like wore a shirt to me.
  • Ronny Helmstet from Number 6Old scoll plummer boy
  • Dave from Staten Island NyJonothan from Australia, see for yourself: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2Huyn9itzIw
  • Silas from Nyc, Ny"This single was the first piece of music to be released by R.E.M. that included a lyric sheet."
    Maybe the second piece. The lyrics for World Leader Pretend were included on Green.
  • Nancy from Baltimore, Mdthis was always one of my favorite songs from them. On the first season of "Friends" at Rachel's party, you can hear it in the background which shows they had good taste in music.
  • Doctor Gregory House from Princeton-plainsboro, NjThis song was featured on the original soundtrack to Bringing Out The Dead.
  • Jonothan from Adelaide, AustraliaI'm not a huge REM fan, but I think I heard once that Dan Rather was seen on a dance floor jiving away to this song. Has anybody else heard that?Now that, I would like to see!
  • Frank from Westminster, ScDid William Tager ever disclose who Kenneth is? I, too, need to know the frequency, and that info would be a big help.
  • Russ from Christchurch, New ZealandUsed as the encore on their recent tour to NZ, and it went off with a bang!
  • Peter from Fort Worth, TxI like the booklet thing for monster that just says all the random words.
  • Randi from Linton, Mei love the line "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy." but it brings up the question of when is something withdrawal in disgust, and when is it a result of apathy...? "irony is the shackles of youth" is another good line
  • Keith from Slc, UtThis song is the bane of every broadcast engineer whose name starts with "K"
  • Epp from Pittsburgh, PaWell, its well know that this song is about a crazy man attacking anchorman Dan Rather. However, it's also kind of a joke about the media too. And yes, the last line says f--k in it and is never bleeped on the radio. Radio stations don't ever bleep the line in Bad Day eather (s--t so thick you could stir with a stick)
  • Colin from Mt Gilead, OhThe last line of the song which is never edited out from Radio Stations is "Don't f**k with me"
  • Thomas from Pittsburgh, PaThe album Green, from 1988, actually included printed lyrics, but only to one song: "World Leader Pretend."
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