A Billion Human Beings Have Been 'Rickrolled'
Forget "Despacito," "Shape of You," or whatever Danish-Italian douche anthem is currently topping the online charts. While these tunes may have racked up tens of billions of listens on YouTube and Spotify, none of them have even a sliver of the staying power of the most well-known song on the internet, an unlikely eighties hit that every single soul on this planet has heard by now. Whether they wanted to or not.
Whoops, wrong link. Recently, the internet celebrated a landmark event as Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" got its one billionth hit on YouTube -- not counting the billions of times the video has been furiously shut off within the first five seconds. And that's not the only way the trifling billion views are unrepresentative of the song's pervasiveness. While Astley himself uploaded the official video in 2009, that was already past the glory days of the song's greatest achievement: The Rickroll, the only meme so feared it made a generation that can't even memorize their parents' phone numbers memorize an entire URL chain.
Rickrolling, a combination of the "roll" from duckrolling (sending someone an image of a duck on wheels as a joke) and the "Rick" from, of course, rickshawing (getting taken for a ride which you immediately regret), was created on 4chan in 2006 as a bait-and-switch prank posing as a link to a leaked Grand Theft Auto IV trailer. After spreading around primitive social media sites like Fark and Digg (Zoomers ask your grandsiblings), the early meme hit its peak in 2008 when it bar-flipped into the real world, Rickrolling everything and everyone, including President Obama, Scientology, The New York Mets, and the entire crowd of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.
Of all the dayfly bait-and-switch memes of the late aughts, what made "Never Gonna Give You Up" so special to become the prank-copter supreme? Is it because it's the ultimate camp low-budget pop, a genre the internet has been obsessed with since the days of Dragostea and the Epic Sax Guy? Or perhaps it's the fact that the video (in the glory days of autoplay) could ambush even the quickest of Alt+F4'ers, overwhelming victims with full throttle synths, confusing white guy grooving, and 14 different costumes and locations -- all within the first 20 seconds of the clip.
But the truth is that Rickrolling didn't turn "Never Gonna Give You Up" into a troll song … because it was one from the day it was born. VH1 noted that Astley's debut in 1987 was one of the most controversial MTV videos of the time. After hearing his dulcet baritones for weeks on the radio, audiences reacted to the video with the baffled anger of someone who was duped into expecting to see a smooth Motown singer but instead was redirected to a ginger kid from England singing like Chubby Checkers and dancing like Chevy Chase.
Even on a metaphysical level, the song seems to possess a quality that German philosopher Ernst Jentsch would have described as unheimlich or "weird as balls." Its uncanny ability to put audiences on the back foot was exploited long before the internet. The greatest example of this has to be the 1989 Panama City embassy standoff when the U.S. military outright weaponized "Never Gonna Give You Up." In an early example of sonic warfare, it and a few other '80s classics were blasted at ear-deafening volumes at ex-dictator Manuel Noriega's hideout until he surrendered, driven to desperation by a lack of sleep and the internalization that the enemy was never gonna give him up, never gonna let him down, never gonna run around and desert him.
If that's not enough to convince you that "Never Gonna Give You Up" was always destined to be a prank song, it's not even the only bait-and-switch concocted by the musical prankings of Astley, Stock, Aitken, & Waterman. There's also "Take Me To Your Heart, whose entire music video heavily features a saxophone player gearing up to do his big '80s sax solo … in a song that doesn't have a big '80s sax solo.
Or everyone's favorite meta-rickroll, "Whenever You Need Somebody," which immediately sows terror and confusion by barging into your ears with the exact same boss-theme drum intro as "Never Gonna Give You Up."
When Astley boogied his way into the eighties pop scene with his colorblind vocal cords, the biggest challenge he faced was being ignored for being a gimmick. That his debut video's arresting beat, in-your-face ginger crooning, shaky-cam editing, and baffling set design make you feel ambushed isn't accidental; it was always meant to grab attention with the breakneck pushiness of a con artist. That "Never Gonna Give You Up" wound up being shanghaied as the dreaded ambush meme is only further proof that Rick Astley has earned the precious title of king of musical trolling. A good thing, too, because the 1 billion YouTube hits only earned him around 50 bucks.
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Top Image: RCA