“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. 

(solo)

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.

I Took Your Name

May 27, 2008

Monster is essentially an album about identity — or more specifically, the fluidity of identity. “I Took Your Name” takes that core concept and pushes it to the most evil extreme: Malicious identity theft and deliberate, sadistic defamation of character. There are a handful of R.E.M. songs sung from the perspective of creepy individuals, but the character in “I Took Your Name” is the only one that is played as a straight-up super villain, right on down to the fact that he’s fairly obsessed with making sure that his nemesis is aware that HE is the one responsible for their downfall, like a bad guy in a James Bond movie. That’s pretty crucial, actually. Our antagonist here is defined by his vanity, and he’s overly concerned with style and affectation. Much of the song is about co-opting and corrupting the image of his rival, who I suppose we can glean to be some sort of rock star, given the references to Iggy Pop and master tapes. It’s a pretty funny song, actually — all of the character’s claims, however menacing, are a just bit skewed and over-the-top.

The arrangement echoes Michael Stipe’s delicate balance of the silly and the sinister, mainly by reprising the thick, heavy-handed tremolo effect of “Crush With Eyeliner,” but applying it to a much darker groove. Basically, if Peter Buck’s guitar effect on “Crush With Eyeliner” is a bit like the image of heat waves rising off of hot concrete, “I Took Your Name” is like the disorienting aftermath of getting hit in the head with a frying pan.

King Of Comedy

April 27, 2008

“King Of Comedy” evolved from another unreleased song from the Monster sessions called “Yes, I Am Fucking With You.” I assume that there are two reasons why that title did not carry over to the finished product: First, and most obviously, it would have caused some problems for the band at retailers such as Walmart. Secondly, that title would’ve made it a little too easy for the listener because yes, Michael Stipe is fucking with you in this song.

There’s a great deal of irony on the Monster album, but “King Of Comedy” is by far the most ironic track, to the point that it’s very difficult to discern whether or not there’s even the tiniest moment of uncomplicated sincerity in its three minutes and forty-one seconds. Throughout Monster, Stipe distorts his voice in order to distance himself from his characters, and this song is the most extreme example, with his processed, mechanical staccato delivery rendering him nearly unrecognizable. The lyrics overflow with cynicism, not just in its advice for advancing a career in the arts, but also in how an artist relates to their audience. It’s easy to take it all as being a simple mockery of ambition and celebrity, but the reason the piece works comes down to the reality that on some level, Stipe relates to the pragmatism and pessimism in the song’s advice.

“King Of Comedy” speaks to a deep ambivalence about the singer’s motivation, and a conflict between self-image and public image. In a way, it picks up where “Turn You Inside-Out” leaves off, with a performer who has become acutely aware of the power he wields over an audience, and attempting to feel out a way to hang on to it while clinging to his dignity, ethics, and pride. At the end, when he repeatedly exclaims “I’m not commodity,” the emotional meaning seems to vacillate between mourning his complicity in the creation of his celebrity, and putting on a show of false modesty.

It’s worth noting that, even aside from its distorted lead vocal, “King Of Comedy” is a very strange sounding song. Monster is often written off as a “return to rock” album that doesn’t quite deliver, but that’s only if you’re expecting a straight rock record. The truth is, it’s more of a queer rock record, full of skewed, campy glam songs with audio textures that evoke a haze of super-saturated colors. The album doesn’t sound quite like anything else, and with its odd collision of industrial rock, arty noise, and disco, “King Of Comedy” in particular is unlike any other song I’ve ever heard.

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream

December 12, 2007

“I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” is a fine example of Michael Stipe’s talent for exploiting images and concepts suggested by the music in his lyrics. Even without his words, the dull thudding and shrill treble notes that dominate the track would evoke the sensation of a splitting headache. His lyrics make it explicit — the character is hungover and depressed, and his matter-of-fact tone implies that he find himself in this state fairly often. The character is some sort of star — the magnitude of his celebrity isn’t nearly as important as the fact that he wields some form of social influence. He seems slightly bitter and confused, as though the initial fun of the social dynamic has mostly worn off, but he’s unwilling to back away from his position even though there’s plenty in the song to suggest that he’s deeply suspicious of anyone he lets into his world. He’s addressing someone that he is presumably providing access to his inner circle, but even when he allows for a split second of intimacy, he’s chilly and aloof. He realizes that he needs the human connection, but he can’t shake the awareness that this person is attracted to some distorted abstraction of himself, and the feeling that his loneliness is an inevitable by-product of his social privilege.

Star 69

December 2, 2007

Though most of the songs on Monster are concerned with characters who are so consumed by their obsession with someone else that they either try to recreate or obliterate their own identity, “Star 69” comes from the perspective of a person who has become the object of someone’s obsession. Perversely, it is the most cheery and playful number on the record. Granted, the stakes aren’t as high as in, say, “I Took Your Name” or “You,” but there’s a sense that the singer isn’t that bothered by the fact that he’s being stalked by his ex, and is actually enjoying the drama and the attention. The words are a bit goofy and friendly, but they hint at the possibility that the protagonist’s self-absorption may eclipse the obsession of the person who keeps calling him and hanging up.

An outmoded technology note: I’m a big fan of artists referring to the technology of the moment in their songs because I always enjoy concrete details in lyrics, and the way specificity ties a song to an identifiable moment in time. For those of who don’t recall, *69 is a telephone feature that allows someone to automatically call back or find out the number of the last call their phone received. It’s still around, but it’s totally redundant now that caller I.D. is a standard feature on pretty much all telephones.

Tongue

August 25, 2007

Not too long after Monster came out, I decided that “Tongue” and “Crush With Eyeliner” were ideally suited to accompanying the feeling of having a crush on someone. The latter is a bit obvious — the title and the lyrics are kind of a dead giveaway — but “Tongue” was more of an intuitive thing. The lyrics clearly refer to sexuality, sure, but it was really all about the way the coy, playful piano and organ parts seemed to be flirting with one another in the way they mingled in the track. The other elements — light percussion, intermittent and nearly subliminal guitar chords — shuffle awkwardly in the back of the arrangement, nervous but hopeful, like wallflowers on the sidelines at a school dance. To this day, I can’t hear the song without wanting to make out with someone.

Of course, this is all very ironic. “Tongue” is sung from the point of a woman — Michael Stipe was very keen on pointing this out on the Monster tour, frequently noting that “this song has tits” — who has grown tired and bitter of being someone’s “last ditch lay.” She’s trying to summon the self-respect and forthrightness necessary to call it off, but she keeps getting sucked in thanks to an unfortunate mixture of loneliness and passivity. She’s disappointed by her actions, entirely removed from the moment, and suspicious of her partner’s half-hearted methods of seduction and attempts to give her pleasure. Her acquiescence is basically a foregone conclusion, and she’s convinced that her suitor is aware of that, so she can’t help but to resent his efforts and question the sincerity of his attraction to her. She’s a very sympathetic character, so it’s tempting to take her word for it, and that the guy is just using her because she’s so easy, but the more I hear the song, I get the sense that she’s projecting her self-loathing on this guy.

Bang and Blame

July 26, 2007

In 1994, “Bang and Blame” was an obvious single mainly because it conformed to the post-Pixies soft-loud-soft dynamic that dominated rock radio. Well, it does and it doesn’t — the chorus is certainly bold and punchy, but most of the song is actually spent in murky verses that amplify the muggy feeling of the corresponding parts of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to a nearly stifling extreme. Whereas Nirvana’s song is an aggressive tantrum, “Bang and Blame” has a strange limpness that makes it angriest moments err closer to peevishness than rage.

That’s not a complaint, mind you. The song is effective precisely because Michael Stipe sounds so worn down, frustrated, and impotent. He’s trying to be diplomatic with someone who has wronged him, and he’s aware that he’s just setting himself to be a doormat all over again. He’s doing his best to be stern and take control, but there’s a passivity at the core of the character and the song that cannot be shaken. At the end, when he succumbs to his antagonist, it’s not at all an accident that his submission is eroticized.