What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?
August 29, 2008
“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh huh.
As the story goes, back in October of 1986, Dan Rather was attacked by two men on Park Avenue in New York City. As the men accosted the famed anchorman, one of them repeatedly asked a puzzling question: “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” It doesn’t really matter so much what actually happened, or what they meant by their strange query. The important thing is that Rather told his version of the story on television, and after that, the event took on a life of its own. Rather’s critics questioned the veracity of the story; some meditated on the attackers’ question as it if were the Riddle of the Sphinx; and this one guy described the episode as “the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century.” More than anything, the “Kenneth?” story became a bit of pop cultural trivia; another strange fragment in a sound bite world.
R.E.M.’s song is not strictly about Rather’s incident, but instead touches on the cultural meaning of the phrase, and the value of esoteric knowledge. Michael Stipe is addressing someone for whom this knowledge is akin to a stimulant — this is a bit vague, but the implication is that he’s in dialogue with a person who relies on controlling information and knowledge as a way of attaining power, and since the market for information shifts constantly, that person is in something of a precarious position. (This person could just as well be Dan Rather himself, given his profession and position of prominence in the media world.)
Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen.
At its most basic, “Kenneth” is about the tension of media insiders vs. the media’s audience, and our singer is in the uncomfortable position of either being a bitter and ineffectual cog in the media machine, or an outsider who has accrued enough knowledge to understand the workings of that world. In any case, our protagonist here is irritated by the way the media shapes a cultural narrative, and is questioning their motives for revising history, however recent.
I’ve studied your cartoons, radio, music, tv, movies, magazines.
Though “Kenneth” is a far more political song than anything else on Monster, the lyrics tap into one of the most potent themes on the record: Obsession. In its way, the song is an echo of “Losing My Religion,” with our protagonist ruminating endlessly on his relationship with an entity that barely seems to acknowledge his existence. “Kenneth” is a few steps removed, and places Stipe in the role of the celebrity stalker who develops his own narrative based on information that he finds, and perhaps inserts himself into the story in troubling ways. It’s a disturbing tension; the push and pull of feeling that you are irrelevant and powerless, and laboring under delusions of grandeur. Though it’s easy to relate to the singer of the song, it seems rather obvious that the character is being written as an unreliable narrator.
Richard said “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.”
You said that irony was the shackles of youth.
Specifically, I think “Kenneth” is about a frustration with the way the media packaged “Generation X” in a way that deliberately glorified Baby Boomers, and infantilized younger people, and wrote off discontent with established forms of political engagement as cynicism and apathy. (You can see echoes of this in how many people write about “Millenials” in recent years.) The implication here is that the person Stipe is addressing is out of touch, unable to understand this new context, and has invested too much in a narrative that casts their generation as cultural heroes, and vilifies and/or belittles the youth. The most bitter irony of the song is that it is apparent that both sides find it difficult to engage with a version of reality that is not some kind of story.
Peter Buck is not a guitarist known for his impressive guitar solos, but his lead part on the bridge of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is particularly inspired. The melody expresses a blank, disappointed form of melancholy, but it’s all rather understated and fluid even though it’s being played backwards in the studio recording. Whereas backmasked parts tend to be rather psychedelic and impressionistic, the solo in “Kenneth” has a more literal effect — it sounds as though we are listening to the notes from a reversed perspective. This suits the song’s lyrical themes about the media and outsiders rather nicely.
I never understood, don’t fuck with me, uh huh.
It still amazes me how many radio and television stations have aired — and continue to air — the song without editing out the swear at the end. All those years of “mumbling” finally paid off.