The Rickroll was at one point one of the most famous memes on the Internet. It's a classic Bait-and-Switch, where you're linked to a web page that purports to be something relevant to whatever you're reading, only to click on it and find yourself watching the music video of British singer Rick Astley's 1987 pop hit "Never Gonna Give You Up".
Why did it become so popular? It's simple, it's mostly harmless, and the song itself is a noted Ear Worm. That said, several had found a way to avoiding it — they simply checked the copyright info on the YouTube link to see if it featured the song (or "content from Rick Astley Official Channel").
It grew to be more than just an Internet meme, though; it was one of the few memes to break out of the Internet and into general popular culture. People were trying this in Real Life, trying to foist the video (or even a live performance of the song) on large public gatherings. Newspaper articles were even written about the phenomenon, to the point where discussions of the song on its own merits as a song were very rare. However, it's considered old hat nowadays, and a tell-tale sign of a Unintentional Period Piece. It also means that Rick Astley himself was very much aware of the meme (he was quite baffled by it and starting to get really annoyed that it's all anyone ever wants to ask him about).
So who started it?
Like a lot of memes, it started on 4chan. It's actually a variant of the duckroll, which consisted of links to a picture of a duck on wheels◊. Duckrolling was actually part of a particularly elaborate trolling method where the point of the link was to send you to a post in another thread — such a redirect forced your browser to load the entire thread, which was super annoying, and there wasn't any easy way to distinguish such links from links to other posts within the thread (which were much easier on your browser). The duck would be in the post you linked to, and its entire point was to remind you that you got pwned.
That being said, no one's certain exactly how it transitioned to the Rick Astley video specifically. It may be a reference to an earlier joke involving the song. One possible candidate is Nick Lowe's song "All Men Are Liars", which mocks Astley and at one point transitions into the chorus of "Never Gonna Give You Up"; another is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which included the song in its riff on Attack of the Eye Creatures because a character resembled Astley. One factor is probably the lyrics of the song itself, with Rick professing how he will never tell a lie in one line. Whatever the case may be, there's almost certainly an "in-joke" element to it, as there is with many Internet memes; part of the point is to make you ask, "of all things, why that?"
The first victim of the Rickroll is commonly believed to be Kylie Minogue — but in a very meta sense. She and Astley were both members of the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory back in The '80s. Apparently, they rushed through the production of her song "I Should Be So Lucky" because Astley was supposed to use the studio to record later that day. Looking at the production dates, it's not impossible to believe she was the first person to have been sidelined by a performance of "Never Gonna Give You Up". Despite the popularity of this video, the first Rickroll victim was not Bill O'Reilly.note
And where can we see it outside its natural habitat?
- Cartoon Network is the all-time offline champion of Rickrolling, culminating in a successful conspiracy with Rick Astley himself to spontaneously perform the song at the 2008 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
- The White House Communications Department, in response to complaints on Twitter that a press conference on fiscal policy was too boring, tweeted a link that turned out to be a Rickroll.
- It's possible to do a Rickroll in Scribblenauts.
- When the U.S. House of Representatives launched its YouTube channel, Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked the Rickroll. More interestingly, the Oregon State Legislature managed to do something similar without anybody noticing.
- Ralph Breaks the Internet hit the audience with the song, while purporting to show a preview of the Frozen (2013) sequel during The Stinger. Some declared it a pretty bad example of We're Still Relevant, Dammit!.
- Hell, they did it twice, with the second trailer using an epic rearrangement of the song.
- In Bumblebee, a Take That! to the meme has the song depicted as a Berserk Button for the eponymous Autobot, who destroys the cassette it's on after being forced to play just a second or two of it.
- Netizens agonized over a big missed opportunity at the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where a "celebration of British pop music", had it included the song, would have Rickrolled basically the entire world.
- At the Petco Park in San Diego, California in August 2019, the San Diego Padres managed to rickroll the Boston Red Sox during a singalong to "Sweet Caroline".
- The "Never Gonna" emote in Fortnite allows you to Rickroll other players.
- In Season 3 of The Masked Singer, the Astronaut performed "Never Gonna Give You Up". This probably would have been unremarkable as just one more pop song used on the show, except it was the final performance of an April Fools' Day episode.
- Omega Layers has the message "Get layer Beta now [working 2020]" which is an external link. Clicking it leads to the "Never Gonna Give You Up" video.
- The Amazing World of Gumball has a Running Gag that's obviously supposed to represent Rickrolling, where someone will click an internet link and get a still image of a chihuahua playing a saxophone with a Suspiciously Similar Song.
Variants of the Rickroll
At this point, the Rickroll is big enough that it would be more effective to do some unexpected variant of it.
- The more obvious variants include (e.g. the "Barack Roll", right around the time Barack Obama was elected president) and the "Reich Roll" (because of course).
- YouTube gave us the "Ruth Roll", misdirecting viewers on April Fools' Day to a video of a cute dancer.
- Users of The Miniatures Page have a variation that directs you to a picture of Sean Connery as Zed.
- Fans of Chrono Trigger are particularly fond of the RoboRoll.
- The Takarazuka Revue fandom has the Zukaroll, sung by Suzukaze Mayo.
- The song itself has been remixed with other pop culture artifacts, one of the most prominent being Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which is particularly apt for such remixes as it shares the exact same time signature (and Ear Worm quality) as "Never Gonna Give You Up". This might be the Foo Fighters, during one live performance, started what seemed to be a cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", only to invite Rick Astley on stage to sing "Never Gonna Give You Up".
- Tumblr created a variant that Rickrolls the Rickroll — the video starts with "Never Gonna Give You Up" (especially its distinctive opening drumbeats) but transitions to Something Completely Different. One variant transitions to a memetic segment of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek", while another transitions to a mashup of "Never Gonna Give You Up" with Darude's "Sandstorm".
- Randall Munroe's What If? blog featured an inversion in "Lava Lamp". A linked video that is labeled "The music video for Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up.'" actually goes to video of a can of pasta being overrun by a lava flow.
- 2020 brought yet another similar Bait-and-Switch tactic called Stickbugging. Here's an example of such a meme. And yes, it's overlapped with the Rickroll.
- And that same year, fans of Henry Stickmin brought us the Distraction Dance.
- Since Hilda was well-known for the first episode ending with its cross-fade transition from the final scene to the credits, a fan of the show was smart enough to create hype for a "lost episode" of Sister, Sister by showing the show's opening credits. Take a guess what happened next... In the words of Hilda, very weird. But such is the life of an adventurer. This variant is called "Hilda-PRANKED!"
Why hasn't YouTube taken it down yet?
Because that's not how the Internet works. That doesn't mean they haven't tried; it was removed for brief periods in 2010, 2014, and 2015. The 2015 removal might have had to do with British cellular provider Virgin Mobile using the song in a number of their commercials, some of which include Astley himself. The Vevo upload of the song has remained on the website untouched since 2009, as Vevo is a joint-venture between Google and several major music companies.
Enjoy the Rickroll, everyone — it's preferable to the Screamer Prank.
- ♫Never gonna give you upNever gonna let you downNever gonna run around and desert youNever gonna make you cryNever gonna say goodbyeNever gonna tell a lie and hurt you♫