In these strange times, there’s no better place to relax than the 90s

Hadley Freeman

Anxiety is very much a collective experience at the moment, but how one soothes it is an individual matter. I am currently taking two approaches. The first is the somewhat meta tactic of calming myself by watching videos of celebrities calming themselves. First there was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who posted a video of himself cuddling his ponies in his kitchen while wearing a Terminator T-shirt, looking a lot like Linus from Peanuts, clutching his security blanket while sucking his thumb, were Linus a 72-year-old Austrian-American multimillionaire. But I think my favourite so far is Sam Neill showing the world how he is getting through self-isolation: by washing his trainers. “I made quite a discovery. I didn’t realise I had so many shoes that are pretty much exactly the same,” he marvels, looking at his windowsill of damp plimsolls. “But, boy do they smell good,” he concludes, taking a hearty sniff of a sneaker and making the same twinkly-eyed grin of delight he once made while looking at a grazing brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park. I never thought I’d derive so much pleasure from watching Sam Neill smell his own shoe, but we are living in strange times.

Part of the reason I enjoy that Neill video is, I suspect, because of the memories he himself brings back. Specifically, the very 1990s memories of watching two of his greatest movies, The Piano and Jurassic Park, both seminal cinema experiences in their different ways. And this brings me to my main method of what a nurse in the hospital where I gave birth last year called “self-soothing”: the theory that mothers shouldn’t pick their baby up and stick a breast in its mouth every time it cries, but rather teach it to self-soothe. Well, my baby has yet to master this trick, but I have been learning to self-soothe this week by suckling on 90s pop culture.

Ever since the world came to a slow and then jarring and shocking halt, I have been listening to 90s American music: the canon, of course (Nirvana, Alanis Morissette, Macy Gray, Lauryn Hill, The Notorious BIG, A Tribe Called Quest, Britney Spears, ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys), but also the less enduring likes of Spin Doctors, Lisa Loeb and K-Ci & Jojo. I’d never before thought of any of these artists as especially relaxing; you don’t often hear them played in a yoga class, although Spin Doctors’ Two Princes would really liven up those sun salutations. But for me they have become the sonic equivalent of a deep-tissue massage. I’m going to be honest: the Clueless soundtrack may have been downloaded. And I’ll be even more honest: it’s been played more than once. (I have a theory that there are only three types of people who grew up in the 90s: those who were obsessed with the Clueless soundtrack, the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, or the Trainspotting soundtrack, and you can tell who fits into each category on sight. Show me the lie, 90s kids.)

Similarly, while everyone I know is frantically studying Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 movie about, well, have a guess, I’ve been spending my evenings with Dawson’s Creek, My So-Called Life, The Larry Sanders Show and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. (Buffy – an obvious contender here – is just too violent for me at the moment.) Last Friday was a pretty fretful day: it was the last that schools were open and I was staring down the barrel of having three kids under five at home while I continued to work. How, I asked myself, eyes spinning with hysteria, was this going to work? Could the four-year-olds transcribe my interviews? Maybe the baby could open the post? But that evening, I put on You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s paean to the miracle of email, and I felt more content than I had done in weeks – even before Tom Hanks discussed how coffee helps people assert their identity. (As another 90s icon, Chandler from Friends, would say, could this film be any more 90s?)

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Some people comfort eat. Others comfort dress. I comfort consume pop culture. When I had a miscarriage three years ago, followed by a five-hour wait between finding out the baby had died and going to hospital to have it taken out of me, I watched Sleepless In Seattle and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Almost everyone sentimentalises their youth, not – contrary to what nostalgia-mining politicians say – because it was objectively better, but because it was a time when you were shielded from cold adult realities. Yet it is also true that everyone I know from my generation now looks back in amazement at how calm things were in our teen years, pre-coronavirus, Brexit, Trump and 9/11. Of course, it didn’t seem like that at the time, with the IRA bombings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Srebrenica massacre, the LA riots and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Sentimentality is cheap. But I would eat my own hair to have Clinton and John Major or Tony Blair in power now, instead of the clowns we have. And that’s not sentimentality but common sense.

In the absence of that, I listen to Jagged Little Pill and, as Alanis screams at her ex about whether his new girlfriend goes down on him in a theatre, all – briefly – feels OK with the world again.