Rosanne Cash and the Many Meanings of Love

One of the most gifted singer-songwriters of our time talks love, science and the deep space between men and women

Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, is not a country and western singer in the tradition of her famous father. She's American music's theoretical physicist of love. (Deborah Feingold)
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So here’s my theory about why she is attracted both to theoretical physics and to songs of love and suffering: Because quantum physics introduced the idea of ineradicable unpredictability into the orderly world of Newtonian physics. We know, for instance, that half the uranium atoms in a given amount will split in a certain time, uranium’s “half-life,” but there’s no way of predicting which atoms will stay together and which will split, emitting dangerous radioactivity. Einstein believed there were “hidden variables” we haven’t yet discovered; most quantum physicists disagree and think it’s an insoluble mystery. Quantum uncertainty. Like love. Who will stay together, who will split.

And unpredictability, fate, whim, emotional changeability, irrational acts and unpredictable passions, eyes happening to meet or not meet across a crowded room. Rosanne’s songs are about the maddening quantum physics of love.

I have one final question on the subject. “Do you think that love songs, in some way, created love or would love have been the same without great love songs?”

“What a question, Ron!” she exclaims in mock alarm. “The real question is, Did art create love? There is a woman who just wrote about this—I was talking to her at a dinner party—she found that songs about love existed in every culture.”

The woman turns out be Helen Fisher, a well-known anthropological writer and researcher. She represents one pole of an interesting, ongoing debate. There are those who believe romantic love is “natural” in some way, with all the torrents of jealousy, aggression and madness that go along with it. On the other side of the debate are, for instance, the authors of Sex at Dawn, who think that our closest primate ancestors were more like the bonobo chimps, who have lots of sex but little of the partnering associated in humans with love—and crimes of love too. So we should behave more like loveless bonobos, I guess. It makes for less drama. But don’t we love the drama?

We talk about the songs we heard that first made us experience love, as opposed to just sex. For her, it was the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

“It struck you, that song?” I ask.

“Oh dumb,” she replies. “Blind and dumb.”

I wonder if every culture, every human-occupied parallel universe has the kind of sad love songs she’s such a wizard at writing. I ask her about a phrase she used in her memoir for our affection for profoundly lacerating sad songs: “morbid joy.” She had cited one of the all-time country weepers. George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”—because after a lifetime of unrequited love, he died that day.

“I can barely pronounce the name of that song without bursting into tears,” I say.


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