The Rickroll is 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 is it so popular? It's simple, it's mostly harmless, and the song itself is a noted Ear Worm. That said, there's a trick to avoiding it — check the copyright info on the YouTube link to see if it features the song (or "content from Rick Astley Official Channel").
It's more than just an Internet meme, though; it's one of the few memes to break out of the Internet and into general popular culture. People have been trying this in Real Life, trying to foist the video (or even a live performance of the song) on large public gatherings. Newspaper articles have been written about the phenomenon. As such, it's old hat these days. It also means that Rick Astley himself is very much aware of the meme (he's 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 most memes, it started on 4chan. The original variant was the duckroll, which consisted of links to a picture of a duck on wheels◊. It 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. 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 eighties. 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 sequel during The Stinger.
- 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.
In fact, the meme now automatically makes any previous use of the song Hilarious in Hindsight, if not thought of as an attempt at the meme before it became a meme (like the Mystery Science Theater 3000 example). A particularly weird case of this is the 1983 film adaptation of I Am the Cheese, which played the song over the end credits (in spite of the film's Downer Ending), which compounded its already Narmy soundtrack choices.
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 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".
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.
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♫