The other day I was watching VH1 Classic and was reminded that I really love Genesis' "Illegal Alien," a disreputable little number that sits at lucky No. 13 on Blender magazine's list of the worst songs of all-time. I fully understand that really loving "Illegal Alien" is really wrong because it's really offensive. In fact, "Illegal Alien" is so offensive that it hardly gets played on classic rock radio stations anymore, despite being a fairly popular single from one of the more popular albums from Genesis' blockbuster, pop-oriented '80s period. (1983's Genesis also spawned the hits "That's All" and "Taking It All Too Hard," one of which has to be spinning on some lite FM station somewhere as I write this. By the way, did you know when you Google "Genesis" the band comes before the Biblical book? Now that's stardom, baby!) A presumably satirical song about the struggles of a Mexican immigrant trying to sneak across the border, "Illegal Alien" can be charitably described as "racist, but in an unintentional, kind of sweet way." The song and video touch on pretty much every Mexican stereotype, like a check list, in the space of four and a half minutes: drunkenness, panchos, laziness, Mariachi horns, bushy mustaches, sneakiness, sombreros, nonsensical Spanish gibberish. Also, it's sung by Phil Collins in a Mexican accent. Ay caramba!
How offensive is "Illegal Alien"? Let's just look at the opening lines, shall we? "Got out of bed, wasn't feeling too good, with my wallet and my passport, a new pair of shoes. The sun is shining so I head to the bar, with a bottle of Tequila and a new pack of cigarettes." So, we have Mexican Phil getting up with a bad hangover, late enough for the sun to be shining brightly, and he immediately heads to the bar with a bottle of Tequila. Why he didn't also fire his six-shooter in the air while his talking, speedy, mustachioed little mouse friend yelled "Andale! Andale! Arriba! Arriba!" is unclear–perhaps the mouse was still sleeping, because he obviously doesn't have a job. In the chorus Phil insists that "it's no fun bein' an e-legal ail-lee-on" and who can argue with him? Even pop-oriented English art-rockers disrespect you.
There's no doubt in my mind that Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, and Tony Banks intended "Illegal Alien" to be a sign of solidarity with their Mexican brothers and sisters trying to make a good life for themselves by coming to America. But the execution gets a bit muddled, especially when heard in hindsight. It's tough not to cringe when Collins sings: "Over the border, there lies the promise land, where everything comes easy, you just hold out your hand!" Again, I'm sure he's trying to be ironic here–at least that's what I want to think–but this comes awfully close to being one of those painfully unfunny novelty songs about immigrants or feminists or anti-war protestors that make Rush Limbaugh fans yuk it up.
And yet…I love this song! Let's go back to those opening lines for a sec. Yes, it's loaded with more stereotypes than a Martin Lawrence movie. But it also sets the scene pretty vividly. It's like Phil Collins turns into John Prine, if only for a few lyrics. And the melody, per usual for a mid-'80s Collins-involved track, is pretty damn irresistible. (A friend of mine once compared "Illegal Alien" to a Guided By Voices song, and I actually don't think he's totally insane if we're talking about the band's overtly classic rock albums, Do The Collapse and Isolation Drills.) I also enjoy the video, which to me is too self-consciously silly and plain old fun to be truly offensive. Of course, I'm a white dude, so I don't get to decide such things, and I can't really argue with someone who thinks "Illegal Alien," good intentions aside, is ignorant. But, damn it, Mexican Phil still gets me every time.
What do you think? Is this song offensive or not? Are there any songs you love despite knowing that you shouldn't?