Rick Astley’s debut song, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” has reached more than a billion views on YouTube, a milestone that only a handful of pop songs have reached, such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
“I am kind of a big deal,” said Astley of the achievement, leaving an appreciative comment on the YouTube video, stating: “Amazing, crazy, wonderful!”
Of course, the milestone would never have been reached if it wasn’t for the immensely popular and enduring internet meme known as “Rickrolling,” a bait and switch prank in which social media users post a disguised hyperlink that leads to Astley’s music video. The meme also extends to posting the song’s lyrics in unexpected places.
The Rickrolling phenomenon originated on 4Chan, as most memes do, having evolved from a similar bait and switch prank that led users to an edited image of a duck with wooden wheels, known as “duckrolling.”
Duckrolling was replaced by Rickrolling in March 2007, after the first trailer for the highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV was released onto the Rockstar Games website, which subsequently crashed due to skyrocketing viewership numbers.
Several 4Chan users posted mirrors to the trailer onto different sites, but one trickster purposely misdirected users to the “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video through a disguised hyperlink, thus, introducing the meme. April Fools Day of that same year led to a flood of imitators posting Rickrolls, exploding the prank into popularity.
Oddly enough, an offline precursor to the Rickroll occurred in 2006, during a local radio sports-talk show in Michigan, after a caller, instead of conversing with the DJ, played “Never Gonna Give You Up” into his phone, leaving the DJ deeply confused. It is unknown if that prank caller directly inspired the pioneer prankster on 4Chan.
The prank spread to the mainstream after multiple Rickrolling public events, one of the first involving the Church of Scientology, which had been aggressively attempting to censor videos critical of the church (what a surprise). The internet “hacktivist” group Anonymous protested the censorship outside of the Church’s various headquarters by chanting the song.
Another public event that spread the popularity of the meme occurred in August 2015, after The Foo Fighters drove past hateful Westboro Baptist Church protesters while blasting the song at full volume, starting a spontaneous dance party.
The meme grew so popular that it was included in the post-credits scene of a Disney movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet, teasing a “sneak peek” of Frozen II which transitioned into “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
Many believe that the meme has endured due to Astley’s unexpectedly deep voice, contrasting with his boyish appearance. Personally, I think Astley’s hilariously half-hearted dance moves, along with his sly grin, imbue the video with a mischievous vibe that its creators never intended, making the song perfect for the prank. Plus, it’s a pretty catchy tune!
Astley initially didn’t seem to know what to make of the meme’s popularity, having stated that he finds it “bizarre and funny,” and that his only concern is that his “daughter doesn’t get embarrassed about it.”
Astley soon embraced the meme, and even agreed to Rickroll the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a surprise performance of the song. Since then, Astley has seen his performance career revitalized by the phenomenon.
Astley can currently be found on TikTok, where he has managed to accumulate 1.9 million followers.