Article Thumbnail

An Oral History of Rickrolling

From the pages of 4chan to the White House, the story behind the meme that’s never going to give you up

On July 27, 1987, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” was released as a single. The song, which was written by famed songwriting trio Stock Aitken Waterman, climbed to the top of the charts in 25 countries, served as Britain’s top-selling single in 1987 and won Best British Single at the 1988 Brit Awards.

While the song was undeniably successful, in the decades to come, “Never Gonna Give You Up” became just as maligned as it was celebrated, with VH1 even naming it as one of their 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs… Ever. It became a symbol of a bygone era, perhaps because the song’s sensibilities were so emblematic of the 1980s, with its heavily synthesized instrumentation. Or perhaps it was the low-budget music video, which features Astley singing and dancing in a trenchcoat. Or maybe it was Astley himself, whose smooth, baritone voice sounded like it had been dubbed onto the skinny redhead dancing onscreen.

While Astley continued working until 1993, he never had another hit and retired from the music business in 1994. His short career and one-off hit made Astley and “Never Gonna Give You Up” fuse into a singular entity in the public consciousness in a way that only a “one-hit wonder” can. 

For all these reasons — as well as the general “randomness” of the song — “Never Gonna Give You Up” became the perfect candidate for a rather unique revival in the age of the internet. And, much like it did in 1987, the song — and Astley — went through a resurgence in 2008, thanks to one of the web’s earliest, and most enduring memes.

The Birth of Rickrolling

Don Caldwell, internet historian and editor-in chief of Know Your Meme: Rickrolling is a bait-and-switch prank where someone posts a link that seems relevant to whatever discussion they’re having, but then the link redirects to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The prank of doing a bait-and-switch on 4chan is one of the oldest pastimes of the site. A popular one back in 2007 was known as duckrolling, where you’d have a link with some catchy title, and then people would click on that, only to be redirected to an image of a duck with these Photoshopped tires.

Duckrolling began in 2006, when 4chan administrator Moot put in a filter to change the word “egg” to the word “duck,” and as a result, “eggroll” became “duckroll,” which is what inspired people to create the image and link to it. Duckrolling eventually morphed into Rickrolling in 2007. The name “Rickrolling” is definitely a 4chan invention, though there is a guy named Erik Helwig who seems to have done something very similar to a Rickroll back in 2006. 

Erik Helwig, founder of Rickrolling (maybe): This was small-town, rural Michigan and there was this radio program called the Postgame Show that covered local sports. People would call in and say stuff like, “My son Christopher played on the team tonight, and he did a real great job!” Stuff like that, so my friends and I started pranking it and the calls started getting weirder and weirder. We’d call in and talk about our favorite Nicolas Cage movies and other weird stuff like that. Then one day I called them and just played “Never Gonna Give You Up” on the air. I didn’t say anything, I just played the song. The host had absolutely no reaction to it, he didn’t say, “I’m being Rickrolled” or anything like that because it was before all that.

I don’t know if I want to call myself the “founder” of Rickrolling. That’s difficult for me because it was something that I did on a whim and later realized that I did this six months before anyone else, which I thought was cool, but that’s about it. I only picked that song because I really like the song — it’s a great 1980s song that’s fun to laugh at in the best way. There’s nothing more to it than that, but I don’t know if somebody else thought of that song as something to prank somebody else with. The Wikipedia page links it back to a 2005 episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and then there’s Duckrolling also, so I really don’t know if I’m the founder or not. All I know is that I called my radio station in 2006 and pranked them with the song.

Caldwell: I run Know Your Meme, which is the world’s largest internet culture database, and one day this guy Erik Helwig reached out to me and was like, “Hey, I think I did the first Rickroll.” I was like, “No, you didn’t. There’s no way.” But then he told me he had proof, and he showed me this recording of him calling a radio station in 2006, which was before things seemed to take off on 4chan. Whether or not they’re connected, who knows? It could have arisen independently, which would be really weird, but with the stuff from the early days of the internet — like the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s — it’s harder to nail things down. With Helwig’s timeline, it seemed to be credible, so we added it into the entry on Rickrolling as one of the claimed origins for the meme.

2008, The Year of the Rickroll

While the 2008 presidential election was going on and the financial crisis hit the U.S. and then the world, the Rickroll took over the internet. It was first a craze on the pages of 4chan, then just about everywhere.

February 10, 2008 — Anonymous Rickrolls Scientology

Caldwell: One of the first Rickrolls — and possibly the first one — was disguised as a preview for Grand Theft Auto 4 in May 2007. Because that was such a hugely anticipated game at the time, a lot of people fell victim to Rickrolling. This prank mostly remained on 4chan for about a year, then on February 10, 2008, members of the internet group Anonymous protested the church of Scientology for trying to censor videos about Scientology. During these rallies, “Never Gonna Give You Up” was played from boomboxes by Anonymous members.

March 8, 2008 — Eastern Washington University Basketball Gets Rickrolled (Not Really)

The New York Times, March 24, 2008, excerpt from “The ’80s Video That Pops Up, Online and Off”: Before the women’s basketball game at Eastern Washington University on March 8th attendees were greeted by a 1980s flashback. Two men on the sidelines surprised the crowd by blasting the British singer Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up” through the gym, while one, dressed as a look-alike in Mr. Astley’s signature trench coat, lip-synched and mugged to the music.

Paul “Pawl” Fisher, video editor: When I did that video, I was in college and I was working for the athletic department of Eastern Washington University. That was when Rickrolling was just hitting the internet, and I’d been Rickrolled myself. I controlled all the cameras during the games back then, and I was basically bored at work, so I saw the potential to pull this off. My boss at the time, Davin, he looked like Rick Astley, so we went and got ourselves a trenchcoat and took it from there.

Davin Perry, Rick Astley impersonator in the EWU video: It was all Paul’s idea, but I was a pretty good fit to play Rick Astley. At the time, I’d just graduated and was working for the athletic department as my first full-time job, which I eventually thought I might lose because of this whole thing, but Paul asked me to play Astley in the video and I did it. 

We did this over four games where, during time-outs, I’d dance at various locations around the court. It was only a few minutes at a time, but he took the footage and edited it together to make it look like a game was interrupted by me dancing. It looked like we Rickrolled a game, but we never actually did; it was all during pregame stuff and time-outs.

He put the video online, where it started getting thousands of views, then hundreds of thousands and then into the millions. Then, two media outlets reached out to us, the New York Times and a local news station, the NBC affiliate KHQ in Spokane. The woman from the New York Times, Evelyn [Nussenbaum], got in contact with the athletic department, and Paul was adamant and said, “We have to make like this really happened!” So I kind of went along. Then the article was published with the story that this had interrupted a game. 

As for KHQ, while they published a story too, they smelled that something was off and figured that this didn’t happen during a game. They didn’t do anything about it, but when they got wind of the Times article, the story became that we were pranking The New York Times and that became bigger than the video itself. The Times confronted Paul after the fact with another interview, and he admitted to it. The reporter, Evelyn, she was mad, she left a really nasty message for Paul and printed a retraction saying that Paul and I pranked them. Meanwhile, my athletic director spoke to me and I thought I might get fired, but they just told me it was unethical to lie to a reporter — that was it. It pretty much ended there. 

The New York Times, Correction, March 27, 2008: An article on Monday about a popular internet video prank known as Rickrolling referred incorrectly to its use during a March 8th women’s basketball game at Eastern Washington University, based on information provided by Pawl Fisher, a student; Davin Perry, who shoots game videos for the university; and Dave Cook, its sports information director. The stunt, which involves a person lip-synching the 1980s hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up” while dressed as the British singer Rick Astley, was performed before the start of four separate basketball games, and the pranksters distilled the performances into a YouTube video. The March 8th game, between Eastern Washington and Montana State, was not interrupted by a performance.

March 2008 — Astley First Acknowledges Rickrolling 

Los Angeles Times, excerpt from “Never Gonna Give You Up, Rick Astley”: Over the last year or so, Astley has watched with puzzled amazement as “Never Gonna Give You Up” has been mocked, celebrated, remixed and reprised, its original music video viewed millions of times on YouTube, all by a generation that could barely swallow its Gerber carrots when the song first topped the pop charts. “I think it’s just one of those odd things where something gets picked up and people run with it,” Astley said. “But that is what’s brilliant about the internet.”

“If this had happened around some kind of rock song, with a lyric that really meant something — a Bruce Springsteen [song], ‘God Bless America’ or an anti-something kind of song, I could kind of understand that,” Astley said. “But for something as — and I don’t mean to belittle it, because I still think it’s a great pop song — but it’s a pop song, do you know what I mean? It doesn’t have any kind of weight behind it, as such. But maybe that’s the irony of it.”

April 1, 2008 — YouTube Rickrolls America

Caldwell: On April Fool’s Day 2008, YouTube did a prank where they redirected all the videos on the front page to “Never Gonna Give You Up.” This period is also notable because it was around the time that YouTube started to become huge, so a big site pulling a prank like this is what helped push Rickrolling into the mainstream. If you look at the Google trends graph I did, you can see that the peak internet searches for Astley and Rickrolling were in April 2008, which shows that this was really the biggest Rickroll ever.

April 8, 2008 — Shea Stadium Gets Rickrolled

Matt Golden, Mr. Met from 1999 to 2011: I was in costume for every game at that time period, and the Mets were doing a ton of interactive features with the crowd back then. One of them was having the fans vote on a song to be played at a certain point in the game — sort of our version of “Sweet Caroline.”

Word got out that this was happening. This was during the time of Rickrolling, and the internet is pretty savvy. They got their hands on it, and somehow Rick Astley figured into all this. Honestly I don’t really remember much more than that — keep in mind though that my ears were muffled by a giant baseball head, so it’s hard to remember a lot that went on for these kinds of things. 

Ken Alper, President of SurveyUSA: In April 2008, Survey USA conducted a poll to see how many Americans had been Rickrolled. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that came about pretty serendipitously. We were planning to go into the field with a nationwide survey on a different topic, and because Rickrolling was receiving a lot of news coverage at the time — the New York Mets had just played the song to a stadium full of baseball fans — I decided we’d toss in a question to see how many people had, at that point, fallen victim to the fad.

We randomly called 959 adults and the number who had been Rickrolled was six percent, which, multiplied by the entire adult population of the country, would have translated to mean 18 million Americans.

May 3, 2008 — A Flashmob Rickrolls Baltimore 

Ryan Goff, flashmob organizer: I fell in love with the Rickroll in the very early days of the meme, and I’d been Rickrolled a number of times by my coworkers and friends — I was also actively Rickrolling others. Rickrolling and flash mobs were both peaking at the same time, so I decided to bring the two together. I created a Facebook event and received an influx of people saying they wanted to attend, then we made it happen with about 100 people. 

I told them all to meet me at a certain time by the bridge at Inner Harbor and to look for a guy with a megaphone and a trench coat. I didn’t expect my speaker to break, so we did it all a cappella. The people loved it — a few people who weren’t part of the original crew also joined in, which was really neat to see, as were the confused reactions from the tourists in the area. Once the song was over, we just walked in separate directions and didn’t talk to each other, then we met at a bar later on.

We were also covered by The Baltimore Sun and some other outlets because I reached out to them beforehand. Because it was in The Sun, it was syndicated all over, and even overseas, so it became this huge story.

August 9, 2008 — The Barackroll Is Born

Hugh Atkin, video editor: At the time, Google had released an online speech recognition app, and you could search political speeches by text. I’d previously put together videos from the debates that had done fairly well, so I decided to do one of Barack Obama to “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Obama was in the ascendancy at the time and I was hopeful that it would do well, but I didn’t expect how quickly it took off. I actually got contacted by a producer on Ellen to put it on their site because it had the footage of Obama dancing on her show. I also saw a show where Rick Astley was shown my video and was asked about it — he said that I had “too much time on my hands.”

My housemate thought of the idea of doing another video where John McCain gets Barackrolled, which I did, and that one blew up too. I actually think that’s the better video. 

November 7, 2008 — MTV Gets Rickrolled

The Telegraph, November 7, 2008, excerpt from “Rickrolling: Rick Astley Named Best Act Ever at the MTV Europe Music Awards”: Rick Astley was named the Best Act Ever at the MTV Europe Music Awards, as fans of the 1980s singer pulled off the biggest ever “Rickroll.” The 42-year-old Englishman received 100 million votes – more than all the night’s other winners combined — to take the title ahead of international stars such as U2, Britney Spears and The Beatles…

Astley’s name was not included on the original award shortlist, but the public were allowed to nominate their own favorites and a groundswell of support quickly built up around the Lancastrian. “We’ve been well and truly Rickrolled,” Richard Godfrey, a senior vice president at MTV and executive producer of the awards said. “We wanted to see who our audience would nominate and, given that we’re in Liverpool, we thought it would be someone like the Beatles. But before the nominations were even announced he shot into the lead.”

Astley did not attend the awards ceremony at the city’s Echo Arena, but issued a statement thanking those who voted for him. “I am honored that my fans worked so hard to help me win Best Act Ever at the 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards,” he said. “This is the first time I have been nominated for the EMAs and I would like to thank everyone who voted for me.”

November 27, 2008 — Rick Astley Rickrolls the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Telegraph, November 28, 2008, excerpt from “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Rick Astley Performs His Own Rickroll”: Dressed in a black winter coat and gloves, Astley ran to the front of the Cartoon Network float to sing — or at least lip-synch — his most famous track next to a chorus of cheering children. His performance marks the pinnacle of Rickrolling. The stunt has single-handedly revived the pop singer’s career — the video of his 1987 classic has been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube — but Astley has until now been reluctant to exploit his unexpected popularity with a new generation. The Thanksgiving parade was the first time Astley has performed his own Rickroll, and may have been the most widely-seen Rickroll ever, thanks to the NBC cameras which filmed the event. 

Joel Godard, announcer for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1999-2010: I did the bumpers on the Macy’s parade for 11 years at NBC, taking over for the late, great Don Pardo, who no longer wanted to do them after a while. During these broadcasts, I was reading live from a script in the Don Pardo booth in Saturday Night Live’s Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Center. I had the broadcast in front of me and was directed by a script coordinator who was in the booth with me during the program. 

I always got my copy the day before, so I guess that means I would have been one of the few people who was aware that they were going to do that Rick Astley thing, but to be perfectly honest, I have no recollection of it whatsoever, even though that’s my voice at the end of the clip. It was a three-hour show and there were a great number of bumpers every year, so that many bumpers over 11 years, I guess my forgetting is to be excused.

Beyond 2008

Most of the significant Rickrolls took place in 2008, but the meme showed a staying power that’s unheard of today. For years afterward, the occasional Rickroll would spontaneously pop up in the most unexpected of places.

March 2010 — The New York City Subway Gets Rickrolled

Jeffrey Rogers, former member of On the Rocks: On the Rocks is the premier male acapella group at the University of Oregon. I was a member back in 2010 when we traveled to New York City for our spring break trip. When we got there, we went to Central Park and sang for the public, which was great because we were getting tips. Then we decided to do it in the subway. 

When we broke out in song on the A Train — as you can see in the video — the New Yorkers on it just didn’t care, but when we put it online, it became a big thing. We started getting a solid YouTube following and that propelled us to be on The Sing Off, which was an acapella singing competition show on NBC. We made it all the way to the second-to-last episode; we also got to dance in a Lady Gaga video, so it was pretty awesome.

April 1, 2011 — The Oregon Legislature Rickroll

Huffington Post, April 13, 2011, excerpt from “Oregon State Legislators RickRoll: Lawmakers Sneak Lines From Rick Astley Hit Into Speeches”: State lawmakers in Oregon have made a splash online, after a video emerged showing members sneaking the words to Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” into their speeches. The prank was the brainchild of Oregon House member Jefferson Smith. According to The Ticket, Smith convinced his colleagues to take part in the prank and then compiled the lines from their speeches over a period of around two months for inclusion in the video.

July 27, 2011 — The White House Rickrolls Twitter

BBC, July 28, 2011, excerpt from “U.S. Debt: White House ‘Rickrolls’ Twitter”: The White House was conducting an online chat it labelled “Office Hours” in an effort to connect to web users about the often dry issue of the debt and budget negotiations. Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council, was taking questions from Twitter users via the official White House Twitter feed — followed by 2.3 million users. After earnest discussion of the state of the economy, of the fate of the U.S. budget and of the continuing negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, one contributor voiced concern over the tone of the tweets.

The Immortal Rickroll

It seems that no matter how old the joke gets, people still like to pull off an old-fashioned Rickroll. In 2015, Apple Rickrolled Apple Watch users by placing the lyrics on its support page. In 2017, the Foo Fighters Rickrolled an audience in London when they brought out Astley and performed his hit song. And while Astley has said he was “done talking about Rickrolling” years ago, he’s still asked about it on a regular basis and will likely never escape the meme that’s led to a career revival.

As for why this meme lives on past other memes, which fade away within months or even days, Caldwell says, “It seems like the volume of memes these days means that none of them have any longevity, but for Rickrolling, it’s such an old meme that it’s like an ‘old-school’ internet reference. It’s nostalgic.” 

And that nostalgia just keeps on going. Even after Polygon declared that “Westworld has finally killed the Rickroll” when the showrunners Rickrolled their fans in 2018, people are still pulling off Rickrolls in 2020, proving that the internet is truly never gonna give up on Rickrolling.