The Meaning Behind “Matilda” by Harry Styles

In 2011, the world knew Harry Styles as a member of One Direction, the newly-formed boy band with its chart-topping hit “What Makes You Beautiful.” Back then, he was one of five teenage heartthrobs in a group that sparked a resurgence of the boy band craze. In 2017, the One Direction members went their separate ways and embarked on solo careers.

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Styles has only increased his career success since breaking off from One Direction. The British singer has released hit after hit, and has even forayed into acting in films such as Dunkirk and Don’t Worry Darling. But his primary focus has remained music. His solo albums have produced a series of hits, including “Sign of the Times,” “Watermelon Sugar,” and “As It Was.” His second solo album, Fine Lines, was nominated for three Grammy Awards, while his third, Harry’s House, won two—for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album, respectively.

As a solo artist, Styles has shown himself to be experimental and flamboyant, but also poignant and reflective. Harry’s House, in particular, was a foray into New Wave/synth pop and was highly conceptual. It spawned four Top 10 hits, including “Matilda.”

Many critics and fans consider “Matilda” the standout track on an album full of great songs. Its lyrics deal with themes of abuse, guilt, trauma, and belonging; specifically, it’s a surprisingly poignant commentary on what it’s like to be a survivor of child abuse. But who is Matilda, and why is her story so important?

Matilda

“Matilda” had two inspirations. One was a person Styles knew personally who told him about their dysfunctional childhood.

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As Styles told Apple Music, “I had an experience with someone where, in getting to know them better, they revealed some stuff to me that was very much like, ‘Oh, that’s not normal. Like, I think you should maybe get some help or something.’ It’s a weird one because, with something like this, it’s like, ‘I want to give you something, I want to support you in some way, but it’s not necessarily my place to make it about me because it’s not my experience.’ Sometimes it’s just about listening. I hope that’s what I did here. If nothing else, it just says, ‘I was listening to you.'”

Styles took the name Matilda from Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name; it tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a brilliant child abused and neglected by her parents and teachers. (The actual “Matilda” has a different name.)

Abuse and Guilt

“Matilda” is surprisingly introspective; it shows deep knowledge of the effects of child abuse. The lyrics progress from remembering a problematic childhood to actually realizing how bad it was. Abuse survivors often misinterpret memories or try to justify them by comparing them to others’ less traumatic experiences.

Nothing ’bout the way that you were treated
Ever seemed especially alarming till now
So you tie up your hair
And you smile like it’s no big deal

The following verses also address Matilda’s guilt about leaving her family behind, but the narrator assures her she was justified. She doesn’t owe them access to her life after the way that they mistreated her.

You can let it go
You can throw a party full of everyone you know
And not invite your family
‘Cause they never showed you love
You don’t have to be sorry for leaving and growing up

Homecoming

In the final verse, the lyrics contrast Matilda’s childhood home with her new one. This ties directly into the title of the album Harry’s House. Styles welcomes Matilda to his house and invites her to make herself at home since she never felt safe with her own family.

You’re just in time, make your tea and your toast
You framed all your posters and dyed your clothes
You don’t have to go
You don’t have to go home
Oh, there’s a long way to go

Photo by Lillie Eiger/Courtesy of Sony Music

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