“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh

R..E.M, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” 1994

I thought about the title of this song this morning when it came on my iPod while running. There’s an interesting story behind which I remember hearing a few years ago. First, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s the song:

It was inspired by an unusual case, in which a man attacked famous American newsreader (or anchorman, if you’re so inclined) on the street in 1986, shouting What’s the frequency, Kenneth!? repeatedly. This man was William Tager, who had been convinced that the media were beaming signals into his head, and he wanted to know the frequency. Why he thought Rather’s first name was Kenneth, I don’t know. Tager was later convicted of the murder of a stagehand outside the Today Show, in 1994.

I like the song, the album it’s from (Monster, though I think either of the two albums released either side of it,  Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi are stronger candidates for the title of R.E.M’s best album), and it’s a good song for your running playlist. I’m particularly fond though, of the line I’ve quoted at the top.

I like the image of a violent-green shirt, and it’s an interesting glimpse into how we refer to colours we don’t like. We always seem to imbue them with dynamism, a sense of action. Perhaps a colour is too loud, or it’s too violent, or it clashes with another colour. I like how we imbue colours with this sense of violent or noisy action, to convey how they assault our senses. There’s something particularly off about violent green. I picture it as a sickly, pale green that your eye never quite settles on. And maybe staring at it too long would lead you to think the government were beaming signals into your head.

As a final bonus treat, here’s a short clip of the time Rather “performed” the song with R.E.M. It’s violent something…

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