The Beatles, Bungalow Bill, and Ridicule of Real People in Art

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is a song by the Beatles released in 1968 as a track on the White Album.  Its deliberately sloppy recording and somewhat juvenile lyrics make it feel like a bit like a children’s campfire song, which is maybe why it was one of the early Beatles songs I got into, back in middle school, when I was first starting to explore music on my own.

Now, as an adult, I have a newfound appreciation for the song, as I have come to understand the darker subtext.  The song, written at a time of increasing public outrage at the genocidal acts committed by the United States military in Vietnam, ridicules a certain type of American Orientalism: Bill, a white “all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” who adopts superficial aspects of (British-)Indian culture, goes out tiger hunting.  When he and his entourage are startled by a tiger, Bill channels Captain Marvel, and shoots and kills it.  The song uses derision to point out the hypocrisy of heroic narratives surrounding imperialism—the hero adopts a shallow and condescending form of cultural appreciation, and saves the locals from some perceived threat, be it a tiger or the scourge of international communism.  But when the children challenge Bill’s act of tiger murder, he can’t stand up for himself, and instead he hides behind his mother, making it clear that his seeming heroism is a thin facade.  At heart, he is insecure, vulnerable, and childish.

So does this character deserve ridicule?  Yes.  When people act self-important in harmful ways, ridicule is an effective way to break that self-importance, which can be helpful for the self-important person, and, more importantly, communicates the harmfulness of the behavior to others who might be influenced by it, as well as communicating recognition of harm to the victims of the behavior.  And the type of attitude adopted by Bill is legitimately very harmful.  The song pokes fun of a relatively low-harm story involving the death of a tiger, but the whole story should be understood under the broader context of Americans in Asia during the 1960’s: Americans in Vietnam were there under a veneer of friendship and appreciation of the South Vietnamese people, but a lack of cultural understanding,a false narrative of heroism, and a fear of the Viet Cong led to the murders of millions of civilians, whom the US was ostensibly there to protect.

So yes, this type of attitude is worthy of ridicule.

But here’s where it gets more complicated:  Bungalow Bill isn’t just a character.  He’s a real person.  And, although the Beatles changed his name to make the song less personal, of course the tiger hunter in question still recognized the song as being about him.  And does the real life person deserve ridicule?  I don’t know.  I don’t know the whole story.  He certainly doesn’t deserve a song ridiculing him by the most famous band in the world.

Is this song a satirical social commentary, or is it a cruel personal attack?  Can it be both?

This was my real experience today, listening to, and appreciating “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” as social commentary, then looking it up and learning it was about a real person.  But it touches on a broader question that I have about media:  When is publicly oriented ridicule of a real person—and I mean a private person, famous powerful people are a completely different case—okay?

I don’t want to definitively answer this question—I don’t think it’s possible to reach a simple overarching answer.  I want to treat “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” as a case study.

And I think the answer is that “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is not about the true story.  The Beatles used a real experience as a jumping off point, but the song is intended as a social commentary that goes beyond the one experience.  The ridicule is not directed at the real individual, instead it’s directed at a real behavioral pattern.

This answer makes me uncomfortable, because in some sense, I’m saying that any hurt feelings from the personal nature of the song are merely collateral.  If the Beatles wanted to tell a general story, maybe they shouldn’t have told a personal story about a real person.  This is an appealing line of thought, but it’s ultimately wrong.  If we can’t base fiction on truth from our personal lives, then what are we left with?

I think this is part of why the death of the author is such an appealing framework.  Art seeks to say something about life, the human experience, and the world we live in.  Seeking to understand how the author relates to the work can bring our attention to real people who don’t deserve infamy, and it make the artistic messages seem petty and small.

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