On 20 May 2022, English singer-songwriter Harry Styles’ third studio album, “Harry’s House”, was released, and its seventh track, titled “Matilda”, has become a quick favourite among many. While some are calling it a tear-jerker, others think Styles could have reached a new peak with this powerful composition.
Who is Matilda?
A folk-kissed ballad, “Matilda”, opens up a trove of repressed, half-baked emotions, memories and bittersweet moments the human mind intends to preserve but ends up leaving them unattended like airtight boxes in a warehouse. What Styles has done is that he has found the key to that warehouse with the help of Matilda. Every line of the song unlocks each of the neglected boxes nestling in our heart and mind. The song draws your attention to that wall in your room — on which is glued a collage of polaroid moments — you seldom find time to stop by and let out a sigh.
Like a fistful of stardust released into the sky, “Matilda” reunites the heart with the soul. The soul which is tirelessly rummaging through the ‘post-its’ from the past to make sense of the ‘postcards’ strewn across the pavement of the present so that the heart could finally find the ‘letter’ buried somewhere in the future. You may choose to call it an ode or an elegy, but “Matilda” politely and gently refuses all labels and instead promises to reside in you rent-free.
Matilda needs no labels
There are multiple interpretations and theories. Many think that Styles was inspired by Roald Dahl’s novel to write about love, loss, longing, and belongingness. Fans worldwide speculate ‘Matilda’ is possibly about the singer’s former girlfriend Camille Rowe, who has been his muse behind a number of songs and has also played a character called ‘Matilda’ in the 2019 film Now Is Everything.
However, after listening closely and carefully, you will realise that “Matilda” can be about you, me, or anybody. Recently, during the ‘One Night Only’ show in Brixton, London, Styles introduced the new single with these words: “The next song we’re playing is for anyone who ever felt guilty for taking care of themselves.” The song goes beyond the person to be about everything that defines one’s ‘personhood’. This is the reason Styles refrains from assigning a gender or any other label to Matilda. Matilda may or may not be a woman. Is Matilda an enigma, perhaps? Not really.
A feminist Matilda
To me, “Matilda” expresses a deeply feminist sentiment. When the chorus sings, ‘You don’t have to be sorry for leaving and growing up, it exposes the workings of a patriarchal society which imposes restrictions on a woman’s mobility, agency, and freedom. Our society tends to demonise independent women by making them come across as selfish because they choose to live their life a certain way by rejecting patriarchal demands of looking after a home and prioritising their family above everything else.
A woman exercising her choice is synonymous with her being self-centred. She is inevitably made to feel guilty about taking charge of her own career, mental health, and self-care. “Matilda” is about not being “sorry” for choosing a path of your own. Matilda is free-spirited and ready to defy prescribed roles and the expectations that come along.
In a way, the song makes a strong plea for the creation of an ecosystem that encourages women to not only lead but be on their own too. They do not need a guardian who can make decisions for her; instead, it would be respectable to have supporters who are willing to listen to her and not dismiss her without reason. The following verse expresses the urgent need for an egalitarian world where a woman’s (or anyone who has been oppressed/suppressed) choices and decisions would not require any kind of ‘clearance’ or an ‘approval’ from either patriarchy or another dictatorial institution.
You can see the world, following the seasons
Anywhere you go, you don’t need a reason
‘Cause they never showed you love
You don’t have to be sorry for doing it on your own
Also read: 20 Indian Songs That Are A Must For Your Feminist Playlist
The power of listening
Another aspect the song touches upon with sensitivity and sensibility is the ability to listen and be a patient listener. The act of listening is not discussed much, maybe because it is associated with empathy, catharsis, and solitude — elements that are not necessarily considered compatible with modern-day traits of being fast, furious, spontaneous, enterprising, social, and so on.
Listening is also intrinsically linked with reflexivity, which again is a major concern in feminist psychology. One of the things that feminist ethics concentrates on is the politics of representation, and representation can be validated only through the practice of reflexivity with a commitment to being attentive in our ways of enquiry. This personal reflexivity that informs our positionality and ‘standpoint’ is something that “Matilda” brings to the centre stage.
In an Apple Music interview with Zane Lowe, when asked about the meaning of the song, Harry Styles said, “I think Matilda is relatively self-explanatory” and added, “it’s not necessarily my place to make it about me”. Further, he said, “sometimes it’s just about listening… If nothing else, it just says, ‘I was listening to you.'” The subjectivity of the subject forms the crux of the experience, and in doing so, the creator takes a backseat and lets the creation assume a life of its own.
Also read: The Feminist Journey Of Popular And Counter-Culture Music In India
Feminist ethics in research addresses precisely this by working toward the dissolution of the hierarchy between the researcher and the researched. Styles wishes Matilda a future she deserves without presenting her past and present from his own vantage point and that in itself lends an emancipatory character to the composition.
While many have called “Matilda” a “heartbreak masterpiece”, it sure can be a ‘heart mend’ classic, too, as Styles sings, “They won’t hurt you anymore as long as you can let them go”.
Featured Image Source: Capital