Single Review: R.E.M. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
Album: Monster
Year: 1994

According to the Dan Rather blog Ratherbiased.com, Rather was attacked in 1986 by William Tager. Tager punched him, demanding to know “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?” He believed the media was watching him and sending him violent messages. Tager would later kill an NBC stagehand in 1994.

Lead singer Michael Stipe said of the attack: “It remains the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century. It’s a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media hyped and just plain bizarre,” as reported by Yahoo.

Stipe turns Tager’s question into a metaphor about the sensationalistic, fickle U.S. media.

A vigilant, pushy guitar opens the single, setting an immediate conflicting tone. Stipe first addresses someone who watches the news and believes every word of the story. For the person, the news is like a drug and the news reporters are speaking directly to him. (Note: news anchors are told to engage in talk to make the viewers comfortable and feel like they are there with them.) Stipe, however, does not turn on the news and hear the latest stories. He views the person as gullible and seeing issues as black and white, not gray. The outlandish, overhyped stories about one topic do not interest him. However, his acquaintance does not question the media and will argue about it’s always right. Stipe and his friends expects this type of behavior and realize the acquaintance is not going to change. (“”What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh/I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed/I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream/Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen/I never understood the frequency, uh-huh/You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh.”) At the “I pegged you for an idiot’s dream,” the tense guitars vibrate.

Stipe has analyzed entertainment and sees the news as another form of it. He’s fed up with the media and ignores it. However, he still questions it and remains informed about the world. He defends his position by quoting Richard Linklater, director of Dazed and Confused and Slackers (thanks Google!) He notices his acquaintance, Kenneth has the phony smile and thinks everyone should have their comeuppance. Kenneth has told Stipe that irony has caused young people to be cynical. Kenneth wears shirts, matching a green screen used for the weather on news stations. It possibly could be his way of receiving the messages (by my speculation.) (“I’d studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines/Richard said, “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy”/A smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth/You said that irony was the shackles of youth/You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh/I never understood the frequency, uh-huh.”)

The guitar has an authoriative solo.

The second verse begins with famous catchphrase. Stipe then describes Kenneth’s fear of every little thing. He put on a butterfly decal on his car for luck. He also gazes into his rear-view mirror, tracking non-events as they happen. (” “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh/Butterfly decal, rear-view mirror, dogging the scene…”) He continues with the second half of the first verse. (“you smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth…I never understood the frequency, uh-uh.”)

Kenneth’s explanations and Stipe’s opinions continue until the end. (“You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh…I never understood, don’t f*** with me, uh-huh.”)

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” is even more relevant today. The U.S. media has been covering trainwrecks and assigning celebrity to those who do not deserve it. It then is considered to be the headline on the news. The tabloid Us Weekly (even though I do read it occansionally) has changed the entertainment media, giving lasting fame to Britney Spears and the Olsen twins.

Just some personal trivia, up until tonight I thought certain lyrics were: “you swore an army were shadows of you” and “you were sucking on a cup, uh-uh.” instead “you wore an armored suit.” “you were a shark, sharp violent ray uh-uh” instead of “you wore shirt of a violent green.”) Thank goodness for the Internet otherwise I’d still think this song was about some guy named Kenneth who was a shark.

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