The song's title refers to an incident in New York City in 1986, when two then-unknown assailants attacked journalist Dan Rather, while repeating "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" This is explained in the liner notes...
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Lyrics submitted by ojms

What's the Frequency, Kenneth? song meanings
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  • +3
    Song Meaning"What's the frequency, Kenneth?" is your Benzedrine

    (The attack on Dan Rather has already been mentioned, this line is a clear reference to that event)

    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

    ("I wrote that protagonist as a guy who's desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it's completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere." - Michael Stipe.)

    You wore our expectations like an armored suit

    (This refers to the generational gap, specifically to the apathetic attitude of slacker youth toward the lofty expectations of their parents.)

    I'd studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines

    (Goes back to the middle aged man struggling to understand youth culture.)

    Richard said, "Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy"

    (The Richard mentioned is Richard Linklater, who directed "Slackers" in which that line is featured.)

    A smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth
    You said that irony was the shackles of youth

    (Two of the best lines in the song. He compares the nonchalant faces of young responders with the cartoons in what can only be an over-analysis. Tied together, the lines imply that the youth get a bit of a kick out of reminding the middle-aged that their generation has lost its sense of irony. There was one more thing about the shackles of youth line, but I can't remember right now.)

    You wore a shirt of violent green
    I never understood the frequency

    (The admission of frustration with something as simple as the new generation's attire going over his head. It's been debated whether 'violet green' refers to the band of the same name, the inspiration for the band's name, or an actual color. I like it intentionally ambiguous and I get a kick out of people trying to figure it out just like the poor sap the song is describing.)

    Butterfly decal, rear-view mirror, dogging the scene

    (Don't know for sure about this one, but in the video for Strange Currencies, a butterfly decal can be seen on the window of the car Stipe is riding in as well as a couple of shots focusing on the rear-view mirror. As a side note, a photograph is on the dashboard...probably taken years ago. *wink wink*)
    YtheLASTbandon November 17, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis is according to AskYahoo:
    News anchor Dan Rather was mugged in 1986 by a madman as he walked down the street in Manhattan. His assailant repeated "Kenneth, what's the frequency"
    Michael Stipe wrote this song in 1994 - the identity of the assailant was revealed in 1997 as William Tager.
    Tager had killed an NBC stagehand earlier and was serving time for that crime. He said that the newsmedia beamed signals into his head and believed he could block them if he found the correct frequency.
    Hence: "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" Rather even joined R.E.M. on The Late Show when they were the musical guest.
    jcreswellon April 02, 2003   Link
  • +1
    General CommentViolent Green was a band from Seattle, circa 1993, when Kurt Cobain and Stipe were friends. Who's guitar is Peter playing in the video?
    "You"=Cobain,"I"=Stipe. Stipe is older, not quite a celeb, and surprised that Cobain is so aware of pop-culture, and his place in it. "You" love the slang, dog the scene(Courtney said they talked music mostly), struggle with fame -"You wore our expectations like an armored suit".
    "I" studied your Slacker/grunge culture, and just don't get it. R.E.M. chose outdated slang, WtFK, to obscure the subject, and a grungey guitar sound, as parody. That's my take - please support/refute!
    gleemeron April 25, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI'm going to refute Gleemer, though I do recall Violent Green in Seattle.

    Ok, Richard Linklater's slacker was a major influence on this song. Hence 'Richard said "withdrawl in disgust is not the same as apathy"' comes from Slacker.

    But "Lady Slings the Blues" by Spider Robinson. The character in 'Lady' wears a shirt of violent green.

    As for "What's the Frequency", that is definitively the Dan Rather attacker and the saying has become mainstream.

    So I think this is an ode to Spider Robinson's work and it uses Slacker and the Rather attack to denote the delusional world Robinson wrote of and how it made Stipe feel (the reading on the fiction).
    marcevanon January 03, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentBesides checking out Richard Lankletter's "Slacker", see also this website to get the story on the Kenneth deal:… It's excellent and a quick read. Funny and explains a little of this song.
    sportcarderon May 27, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentFantastic song - it is so under-rated
    butterflykiss84on August 18, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis link doesn't work. sells building plans. Where else could if find it?
    soundmanon August 28, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthe line 'whats the frequency, kenneth?' is from a 1989 daniel vasquez comic called 'like a velvet glove cast in iron'. its extremely wierd, but also extremely good.
    stattoon September 22, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti thought everyone knew that's where what's the frequency kenneth came frome. And I always wondered what the hell it meant. when this song came out I was 14, my parents told me that was what it meant. Still I wonder what this song is exactly about.
    crashbangboomon April 10, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General Commentmichael was intrigued by a story about a crazy dude who mugged dan rather. while he mugger the famous anchorman, he yelled into a microphone, 'what is the frequency, kenneth'. so rem made a song about it and included subliminal messages about how the media puts ideas in your head.
    epp88on June 04, 2004   Link

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