Genesis’s “Illegal Alien” was failed satirical look at the frustrations facing Mexican immigrants

By on March 12, 2018

In the early Nineties, re-packaged “Night Flight” episodes began airing in syndication — with a new host, Tom Juarez — introducing familiar show segments which had already aired in the previous decade. Check out both ’90s-era episodes we’ve just added to Night Flight Plus.

A little over halfway into this particular 90-minute episode from 1992, viewers were given the chance to see Night Flight’s “Video Profile: Genesis,” which featured their incredibly controversial racist and xenophobic video for “Illegal Aliens,” a failed satirical look at the frustrations facing Mexican immigrants.

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The track’s title may have been inspired by an older album track by Phil Collins‘ progressive fusion rock band Brand X, “Dance of the Illegal Aliens,” which appeared on their imaginatively-titled 1979 album Product.

We’ve also read that the real story behind Mike Rutherford’s lyrics was that he and his fellow band members had a little bit of trouble obtaining visas upon re-entering the United States to go on tour.

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Rutherford and company wanted to show solidarity towards those coming to America to make a good life for themselves by working low-wage jobs.

The lyrics Collins sings — from the first-person point-of-view of one of these immigrant workers — were intended to make the listener feel more sympathetic towards their difficulties (chorus: “It’s no fun, bein’ an illegal alien” — and, yes, Collins rhymes “fun” with “alien”).

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However, watching the video today — where bassist Mike Rutherford, keyboardist Tony Banks and a toupéed Phil Collins are depicted as greasy Mexicans, sporting fake Pancho Villa-style mustaches, wearing sombreros and ponchos, and, for some reason, Collins is holding cucumbers in both hands — it’s clear they failed by perpetuating the problems of racism and exploitation underscoring undocumented immigration.

The video, in fact, pretty much promotes the same kinds of awful tone-deaf stereotypes previously seen in racist Looney Tunes cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s, the ones that depicted hard-working Mexican workers as tequila-soaked lazy “wetbacks.”

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The absolute worst lyric comes in the second stanza of the bridge, where we learn the singer is willing to pimp out his own sister, offering her sexual favors as bribes, in order to get across the border easily:

Keep your suspicions, I’ve seen that look before
But I ain’t done nothing wrong now, is that such a surprise
But I’ve got a sister who’d be willing to oblige
She will do anything now to help me get to the outside

Ay caramba!

This verse was later edited out of radio versions of the single and music video, and Genesis have distanced themselves further from the song by refusing to play it in concert, ever since their 1983-1984 tour.

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Read more about Genesis’ “Illegal Alien” video below.

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The video for “Illegal Alien” was directed by British filmmaker Stuart Orme, who worked extensively with Genesis on long and short-form music videos (“No Reply At All,” “Misunderstanding”) before moving into TV and feature films.

There’s a behind-the-scenes video that someone posted to Facebook which makes it look like everyone involved had a great time making the video.

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In this “Making Of” video, a costumed Phil Collins is introduced to us this way by someone off-screen:

“Welcome to Mexico. This is Pedro. He has a small restaurant by the seafront.”

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Setting aside for the moment the fact that “Pedro” likely wouldn’t have to cross the border into the U.S. if he owned his own restaurant, Collins is seen wearing fake hairpieces — a black toupée and matching bushy mustache — and a black shirt and white tie, and black trousers unbuttoned at the waist, his belly refusing to give in to the confines of a belt.

All of the characters in the video, meant to represent caricatures of Latinos, look more like the villains and supporting characters you might see in Italian spaghetti westerns.

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“Illegal Alien” — the fourth single from their self-titled 1983 Genesis album, the same one that spawned the hits “That’s All” and “Taking It All Too Hard” — was released on January 23, 1984, in the U.S.

The single landed just outside the Top Forty in the U.S. (#44) and the UK (#46), and we have no idea how it fared in Mexico and other countries below the southern border.

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Watching Genesis’s “Illegal Alien” 1984 video again today reveals how, in the year 2018, we really haven’t come that far in our discussion about immigration, and just how wrong-headed racist stereotypes — which never really match up with reality — really are.

The term “illegal alien,” in fact, was found so offensive by the New York Times that they began using “illegal immigrant” instead, maintaining that “illegal alien” was the more “sinister sounding expression” and typically meant to denigrate certain people by using a word (“alien”) which specifically means “a person who is hostile to this country,” or “an enemy from a foreign land.”

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Perhaps Phil Collins should re-record “Illegal Alien” again, updating it for today’s audience, only we suspect that a less-racist, less-stereotypical new version — perhaps with a chorus saying “It’s no fun being an undocumented guest worker with government amnesty” — would probably not sit well with a large portion of this country’s listeners anyway.

Plus, it doesn’t rhyme.

Watch Genesis’s “Illegal Alien” — and many more of the band’s group and solo videos, including Peter Gabriel’s “Games without Frontiers” and “I Don’t Remember,” and several by Collins and Rutherford’s Mike & the Mechanics — along with a Video Profile of Sting, in this 90-minute episode from 1992 of vintage “Night Flight,” now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.