Neil Tennant's Honorary Doctorate

On March 31, 2022, Neil was awarded the degree of Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Durham in a ceremony held in Durham Cathedral. The University of Durham—more popularly referred to simply as Durham University—is a public research university in Durham, England, founded by an Act of Parliament in 1832 and incorporated by royal charter in 1837. It's located only a little more than 20 miles (about 35 kilometers) from Neil's birthplace of North Shields and from where he grew up near Newcastle, and Neil owns a home in County Durham, facts that make Neil something of a "local boy made good."

Neil had been nominated for his honorary doctorate by Stephen Mumford, Ph.D. Professor of Metaphysics in Durham University's Department of Philosophy. Dr. Mumford also delivered the oration introducing Neil at the award ceremony. Dr. Mumford was kind enough to write to me and provide the text of his oration, which I'm pleased to reproduce here:

As singer, musician and main lyricist in Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant has made an indelible mark on British and world culture in an entertainment career of more than 40 years. Since 1984 Pet Shop Boys have released 14 studio albums, 4 remix albums, 2 live albums and 7 compilation albums. With his co-writer Chris Lowe, Tennant has brought art to pop and pop to art, producing music that has endeared itself to several generations of listeners. In addition, Pet Shop Boys have starred in a movie, have written a musical, a ballet score, a soundtrack for the 1925 silent movie Battleship Potemkin and an oratorio, A Man From the Future, based on the life and death of Alan Turing. They have worked with a plethora of other artists, including Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli in music, Derek Jarman in film and Jonathan Harvey in theatre. In March 2016, Edinburgh University held a two-day academic conference on the work of Pet Shop Boys.

Raised in Newcastle, he left with a haversack and some trepidation for student life in London, started a career with Marvel Comics and then became deputy editor of music magazine Smash Hits. His chance meeting with Chris Lowe in 1981 was a turning point for his life and for British music. As a team, they survived their early chart success, able to adapt as Tennant's lyrics adopted a maturity and sophistication that cultivated and retained new audiences. Full of literary, political and historical allusions, Tennant's words are layered with multiple meanings that can be read lightly and superficially or deeply and philosophically. Is "Indefinite Leave to Remain" merely an immigration status or a firm relationship commitment? Was "The Forgotten Child" a missing refugee or our lost compassion? In 2018, Faber & Faber published a collection of Tennant's work: One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem.

It is easy to mistake Neil's work for London-centric yet, in many senses, Pet Shop Boys are a Northern band, bringing a wry Northern perspective to their commentary on British, European and Global life. The 2002 album Release was recorded here in County Durham and their recent single "Burning the Heather" evokes the County's landscape. Consistently profound and thoughtful, Tennant's words nevertheless speak to a universality in the human experience, there for us in times of pain or pleasure, love or sorrow, through life's mistakes and joys, there is a song for each mood and occasion. Here, the listener will find resonance, encapsulated in memorable verse. "We all make a mess of our lives from time to time. It's part of the process that you stumble as you climb." Everyone needs solace such as this at some point in life.

Pet Shop Boys never set out to produce great art. They work in pop and pop music is immediate, accessible and disposable. It is clear, nevertheless, that something enduring evolved, and whether it is definitive of great art or not, we know that Neil Tennant's words will be heard and enjoyed as long as there are people in this world free to listen.

Chancellor, I present Neil Tennant to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

As related in Annually 2023, Neil then accepted his honorary degree with his own (as he put it) "very short speech indeed":

As a native of the North East, it feels like both a personal and a professional honour to be recognized by Durham University for the song lyrics I have written. Thank you.

As Dr. Mumford told me, "Honorary doctorates in the U.K. do not entitle recipients to call themselves Dr. but the award does mean that Neil could add the letters D. Litt after his name, if he ever wanted."