She Was More Than Just Elvis’ Daughter

by Peter Piatkowski

Lisa Marie Presley died on 12 January 2022 at the age of 54. The news was met with shock, given the (relatively) low profile that Presley maintained in the last few years. She interrupted her hiatus with her promotional efforts on behalf of Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis, the musical biopic about her father, the late/great Elvis Presley. Her final public appearance was at the 80th Golden Globe Awards, which she attended with her mother, actress Priscilla Presley, in solidarity with the film, which was up for several awards that evening.


lisamariepresley_towhomitmayconcern_150Presley lived to be 54 years old, gifted over a decade more than her legendary father, who died prematurely at the age of 42. Lisa Marie’s public persona connected with her father’s legend in those 54 years. Elvis Presley isn’t merely a singer or actor but an institution, and unarguably, one of the greatest performers and entertainers of the 20th century. Elvis cast a long and unforgiving shadow from which his daughter managed to pull away, creating an estimable legacy of her own.


Popular culture is rarely static, and seemingly unrelated events can suddenly find some overlap. Presley’s tragic death dovetailed with a renewed public conversation over nepotism in the entertainment industry. The frankly unnecessary conversation was brought up by New York magazine in its winter issue late last year. As with any discussion being conducted on social media, a catchphrase was born from the debate: nepo baby, truncated from nepotism baby. The faulty premise of a “nepo baby” relies on the incorrect assumption that the entertainment industry is primarily a meritocracy and that “nepo” babies somehow have an unfair advantage over other potential celebrities. We know that hard work and talent aren’t enough to make someone rich and famous and that there are loads of other “unfair” factors, including luck, beauty, fortune, and yes, family connections.


But Lisa Marie Presley was a particular case because she wasn’t merely the child of someone famous. She was the child of an icon, a historical figure. She was in a small, exclusive class, with a scant few who knew how difficult it would be for her to forge her own public identity. Liza Minnelli, Nancy Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley were in that class: offspring of legends who decided to follow in their late parents’ footsteps. Though she was immensely privileged, it was still brave of Lisa Presley to move forward with her life, eschewing the life of a celebrity “it” girl, content in spending her millions and becoming a professional celebrity. Instead, she decided she would be a singer, like her dad. It takes guts to become a performer, exposing oneself to the scrutiny of audiences, but it takes guts of steel to make that choice when your father was one of the greatest performers ever to take the stage.


And yet, she made that choice, and she was great. She released her debut album in 2003, To Whom It May Concern. The album was preceded by the single “Lights Out,” a self-referential tune that was a grand introduction to the pop world of Lisa Marie Presley. When “Lights Out” was released, curious audiences were given an answer to the question, "What kind of sound she would embrace?" Instead of going down her father’s route, she seemed to take more inspiration from Sheryl Crow and late ’90s, early 2000s adult-pop. Her voice had shades of her dad, but its hooded huskiness also had echoes of Cher. The music in “Lights Out” was glossy, crunchy guitar-pop, surprisingly sleek and polished. The Lisa Marie Presley of “Lights Out” had designs on being a pop diva.


The title of the album is terribly clever. To Whom It May Concern. The phrase is a generic opening to a letter when one doesn’t know the recipient’s name; it’s a salutation used when the letter writer is a stranger sending an unsolicited message. Presley’s debut album was an unsolicited letter to her public—a cold call, of sorts, because though she was famous for a long time, she was mostly silent, letting her musical muse stay hidden.


When “Lights Out” was released, we discovered that Lisa Marie Presley was not only a gifted singer but also a talented songwriter, as well. A spirited and insightful lyricist, on “Lights Out” Presley plays out her complicated relationship with her father and his crushing legacy. Over a wall of crispy, rollicking guitars, she croons with melancholy about Memphis, singing:


Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis

Oh, that’s where my family’s buried and gone

Last time I was there, I noticed a space left

Oh, next to them there in Memphis, yeah

In the damn backyard.


The lyrics, bruising and sweet, are now unbearably sad and poignant. Presley will be buried in Graceland, along with her late son, her father, her grandparents, and her great-grandmother. When she sang the song 20 years ago, she was wrestling with a rich and complex familial past, not realizing that the song would take on haunting, tragic pathos given her son’s tragic death in 2020 before her own untimely passing. Notably, though it’s clear that Presley is singing about Graceland, she doesn’t mention the almost-beatified place explicitly, the omission heavy because it connotes a familiarity and closeness; to her, Graceland is both GRACELAND but also her family home. Though in public, she was suitably aware of the majesty of the place, it’s also a part of her childhood, both a public and personal part of her celebrity. By singing about Memphis, she’s paying tribute to her past but also making a concerted and calculated effort to assert her individuality. In the song, Memphis is first—she’s singing as a native Tennesseean, placing herself in that long musical legacy of that state (a legacy that includes her father but so much more than that).


lisamariepresley_nowwhat_150By all accounts, To Whom It May Concern was a hit. It debuted in the top five on the Billboard album charts and went gold. Critical response was warm. Though many critics commented on the pop sheen of the album, most were excited by Presley’s distinct point of view and unique voice. Her sophomore album, 2005’s Now What, felt like a sequel, building on the sound Presley established with her debut album. For that album, Presley worked with two influential women of 2000s pop, Linda Perry and P!nk. She also recorded two covers, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” and the Ramones’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.”


“Dirty Laundry” was the album’s first single. The song is an excoriating slam against empty-headed infotainment and tabloid news. Though Henley wrote the song in 1982, Henley’s sharp and pointed lyrics would predict just how gross tabloid and celebrity media would become. Though Presley took great pains to curate and manage her image, her marriage to Michael Jackson gave her first-hand experience of living in a media circus. Her father was the most famous man of his time, and she married Jackson, the most famous man of his time. Her relationship with celebrity up to that point was intricate. She sought celebrity and fame by making music, yet she also saw how ugly colossal fame could be when married to Jackson. Therefore, choosing “Dirty Laundry” as the first single made perfect sense. (It should also be noted that during her brief pop career from 2003 to 2005, she was also married to actor Nicholas Cage.)


lisamariepresley_storm_150After Now What, Presley’s music career entered a period of transition. Like Natalie Cole, she turned to digital technology to duet with a late parent, releasing a cover of “In The Ghetto” with Elvis. It wasn’t until May of 2012 when Presley her third and final studio album, Storm & Grace. It followed the album’s first single, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” which was released in April of that year. The sound on Storm & Grace was a stark departure from To Whom It May Concern and Now What. The years between 2005 and 2012 seem to have given some peace to Presley’s angst about being Elvis’ daughter, and she embraced the country and bluesy-rock of his most remarkable work. Working with the brilliant T Bone Burnett, Lisa Marie Presley released a brilliant record of rootsy rock music. The new setting—rougher and more organic than her previous work—was a perfect complement to the sad depth of her voice. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” is a menacing country-rock number that plays up to Presley’s snarling voice.


Following the excellent Storm & Grace, Presley went on an additional, extended musical hiatus. One of the last things she did in the studio was another duet with her father, “Where No One Stands Alone,” the title track of a compilation of Elvis’ gospel music. Though he was known primarily for his rock-and-roll performances, Elvis’ Southern roots and appreciation of church music translated into some beautiful gospel music. Lisa Marie Presley joins her father, her voice—which inherited some of his hallowed timbre—proving herself a powerful and stirring singer in her own right.


Lisa Marie Presley’s musical output is relatively small—three studio albums stretched out over ten years and a selection of singles—yet it’s a solid oeuvre that deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, separate from the legacy of her father. Several times in her career, she showed her audiences that she was a talent and a force to be reckoned with. Though her memory will be forever tied to her father, she also has a legacy of her own.

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