Rickrolling: The Theme Song of the Internet

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“Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you…” If you grew up on the internet like me, you instantly recognized these lyrics from the song Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley. Released in 1987, this song was fairly popular in its time, but it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that it blew up to be one of the most recognizable songs today. This brings up the question: how did a pop song from the 1980’s manage to take the internet by storm and accumulate nearly 800 million views on Youtube? The answer to the song’s fame is its status as one of the most popular memes of all time.

The meme itself is not so much the song as it is tricking others into viewing the music video. The meme uses the concept of the bait-and-switch by providing a link that claims to take you to a certain webpage, but it instead takes you to the Never Gonna Give You Up music video on Youtube. The website know your meme explains how rickrolling was actually a spinoff of duckrolling, in which a link would take the user unknowingly to a photo of a duck with wheels instead of feet:

Duckrolling, and subsequently rickrolling, were created on the website 4chan. According to 4chan founder m00t, the first instance of rickrolling was around May 2007 when a user linked the Rick Astley music video when claiming the link was for a sneak preview of Grand Theft Auto IV, a massively popular video game at the time. People enjoyed this prank and started to try employing the bait-and-switch themselves, allowing rickrolling to quickly gain meme status. Throughout the next couple of years rickrolling began to appear everywhere, even reaching mainstream media. Some examples are highlighted in this article. And, of course, countless memes were made referencing the phenomenon, several being shown below:

Nowadays, the lifespan of a meme is very short, often only a few weeks. There are two major reasons that a meme fades out of popularity; something better comes along to take its place, or it becomes so popular that it loses what made it great in the first place. This second effect is often caused by the mainstream media and corporations sucking the life out of the meme and using it for profit. Rickrolling is one of the only memes to overcome these obstacles and has managed to successfully stay relevant for over a decade now. As shown on Google trends, the song has declined since 2008 but has managed to stay well above its level before it became a meme. Because of its simplicity and general appeal, corporations and mainstream media were able to use rickrolling without changing it or ruining it. The bait-and-switch is universally funny because anyone can fall for it. Since 2007, rickrolling has shown up just about everywhere and gets a laugh out of the internet even today.

Google Trends Show Interest in Rickrolling Over Time

Now for some other of my favorite instances on rickrolling. In 2008, Youtube pulled off perhaps the largest rickroll to date when they made it so every link on the site took you to the music video on April fools day. That same year, the New York Mets held an online poll for fans to decide what song to be played during a break in the 8th inning. The internet, being the internet, overwhelmingly voted for Never Gonna Give You Up, rickrolling the tens of thousands of fans attending the game. Compared to today, politics in America were much friendlier and more fun back in 2008. This is demonstrated through multiple instances of rickrolling in the Obama administration and other political settings throughout the country, like this bipartisan group of Oregon legislators coordinating their speeches to recreate the lyrics of the song. In response to a tweet saying it was boring, the official White House twitter account responded with a link to none other than Astley’s music video. These pranks bring a sense of nostalgia for the ability of both parties to put aside their differences and share a laugh.It’s hard to picture anything like this coming from the Trump administartion. 

As the star of rickrolling, Rick Astley himself has joined in on the fun on numerous occasions. In this video, the green screen behind a weather reporter begins to play the Never Gonna Give You Up music video. Then, once the reporter realizes he’s been tricked, Astley himself comes out and starts dancing along with him. Another instance of Astley getting involved is when he emerged on a float as the song started playing at the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade. Despite being the face of the meme, even Astley is not immune to falling for the bait-and-switch. Astley has become a fairly regular reddit user since his internet fame began, often chatting with fans on the site. In 2018, the singer was tricked by a fan on reddit who sent him a link that he claimed was to a photo of the two meeting at one of Astley’s concerts. This was big news at the time, with it even being reported on Time’s website. Astely was a good sport about it and responded to the user with a clapping emoji. Astley has mentioned that he doesn’t feel all that much of a connection to the meme since he had nothing to do with it, but he is still glad to have been introduced to a new generation through rickrolling. He says he still is not sure why this song in particular was chosen to become the theme song of the internet, but he has enjoyed his second of fame in the last decade.

Rickrolling took the world by storm when it began, much like many other memes. Unlike most other memes, though, this one has lived through an eternity in terms of the internet and is still alive and well today. This last article gives a very interesting take on how rickrolling has stayed so successful. It is nearly impossible what the popular memes will look like another decade from now, but I can confidently say that rickrolling will still be around.

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