A month ago, you couldn’t turn a centimeter without hearing the god-awful yarns about Lisa Marie Presley’s marriage to Michael Jackson (she liked rough sex), her divorce from Nicolas Cage (he filed the papers because he’s a hothead) and her devotion to her father (she told him, “Daddy, don’t die” months before he left the building for good).
This barrage of media coverage helped catapult her fine, rocking debut, To Whom It May Concern, to No. 5 on Billboard’s album chart — with sales dipping 50 percent the following week. (Maybe some Elvis fans heard comparisons to singer Sam Phillips in the reviews and thought this was gonna be a Sun Records jamboree.) With the attendant media hoopla gone and no second hit single to take the place of “Lights Out,” conventional wisdom would tell you that To Whom It May Concern is over.
But conventional wisdom has nothing to do with Lisa Marie Presley.
Most new artists struggle for eons to get a scintilla of the media attention bestowed on Lisa Marie just for poking her head outside the gates of Graceland. She’s already inspired more reams of press than a galaxy of Beyoncés could hope for. Her career’s sole purpose is to give the public a reason to read about her that has nothing to do with being a wife and daughter of American icons. It’s as if the barrage of Barbara Walters-styled interviews were a way of clearing the deck before the real work of becoming a full-time performer could happen. Although it hardly qualifies as working off the radar, last month she began her first-ever tour, supporting Chris Isaak, who’s had a pompadour hairdo like you-know-who since the mid-’80s, when his debut album re-created the pose on Elvis’ picture sleeve for “Don’t.”
So what do you want to know about Lisa Marie, musician? That she digs Rage Against the Machine but has a soft spot for Journey and Pink Floyd? That she got into punk at 13? Nah, you say? You want to know if she has Memphis burial space next to pop like it says in “Lights Out.” You people are incorrigible!
“I like to think of it as a standing reservation,” she says morbidly.
So dead-set was she against trading on her famous name that she lobbied not to have “Lights Out” — possibly the first pop song ever written about Elvis by someone who actually knew him — released as her first single. Does she still feel the same way?
“Yes, absolutely,” she laughs before turning serious. “Yeah, I think it goes against what I’m trying to do. I didn’t want people to think I needed to refer to that in any way to try to get my own credibility. That’s why the record is important to try to encourage me to get my own signature and my own credibility. But then there is the whole argument that I had with the record company that says you might as well get it out of the way right off the bat and I just let it go and they tested it and it worked so I let it go. Plus it’s the most commercial-sounding song. That’s the key, writing something with a hook that’s going to get on radio. How can we get more radio play?”
Radio play must’ve been the overriding concern four years ago when she teamed up with producer/songwriter Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Shelby Lynne) to write “Lights Out” and four others that wound up on the album. The absence of Ballard’s name in a production capacity indicates that an earlier, possibly more commercial-sounding To Whom It May Concern was once planned.
“That was a constant battle,” she says. “Let’s have more up-tempo songs in a higher vocals, higher range. That’s why I had to get someone else to produce the songs we wrote together.”
Even so, the album retains a tough sheen under Eric Rosse’s production hand, matching the no-nonsense sentiments in each of album’s twelve lyrics. Unlike ex-husband Michael Jackson, Lisa Marie’s lyrical prose never seeks to place the blame on someone else for her own misery. “I didn’t realize that till afterwards,” she admits. “That was pointed out to me during the Playboy interview. Feel sorry for myself? That’s not me.”
“It’s definitely my fault,” “I was wrong,” “I’m the one to blame” … they’re all catchphrases that peer out at you from the CD booklet, but none is catchier than “I just like to bite my fucking fingers /Do you have another intelligent answer for me today?”
Press speculation on which song is about which husband has “Gone” getting Nicolas Cage honors while it’s hard to hear “Sinking In” without thinking of Michael Jackson’s nose. During the Jacko years, it was reported that Michael was going to produce a Lisa Marie album. How close was that to being a viable proposition? “Never. I was trying to find my way as his wife. I wasn’t even thinking about myself. More hiding behind him so I didn’t have to think about myself.”
As for using her personal life as subject fodder, it’s every songwriter’s prerogative and Lisa Marie says, “Usually when I want to tell them what I’m going through while it’s happening, I’ll take the song to the person and say, ‘I just wrote this and this is how I feel’ and they know right off the bat. I’m pretty accurate.”
Releasing a first album in your mid-30s suggests that you’ve had lots of time to think about what to say. Now that Lisa Marie’s gotten a lifetime of hang-ups off her chest, will there be a second album? Having turned down a record deal at age 24 because she was “pregnant and can’t deal with this now,” she seems perfectly capable of hanging up her rock and roll shoes at the first sign of dissatisfaction.
“It’s already been established that there’ll be a second one to some degree. But I’m not a pop queen. I’m not in any music category. I kind of left it open so I’m kind of happy about that one. I dunno. I have ideas.”
What’s that you say? How about a bunch of posthumous duets with her Dad? God, you people suck!
Lisa Marie Presley will perform at the Meadow Brook Theatre (Oakland University, Rochester) on Tuesday, Aug. 5, with Chris Isaak. For info, call 248-377-0100.Serene Dominic is a music journalist and author. Contact him at [email protected]