Illustration by Spencer Olson

Rick Astley Is 50, but Rickrolling Remains Timeless

The secret life of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’

Some songs have weird afterlives that their creators never could have anticipated. The Sopranos gave Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” a newfound sense of unease 26 years after its initial release, thanks to the show’s tensely unresolved series finale. Anyone who’s seen the 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken can’t hear Blue Öyster Cult’s 1970s hit “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” without laughing at the song’s clattering cowbell. No matter their original inspiration, some songs inevitably get reshaped after they’re sent out into the world.

Singer Rick Astley just released a new album, 50 — his first in 11 years — the title referencing the fact that he just hit the half-century mark. But, as Astley himself probably suspects, nobody cares about 50: For better or worse, the culture has freeze-dried the singer at 21. That’s how old he was when his first single, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” conquered the airwaves, hitting No. 1 on the U.S. charts. Twenty years later, the song re-entered the zeitgeist in one of the oddest ways imaginable — especially to the people who first created the hit.

Growing up in England, Astley sang in his church choir and played in bands, attracting the attention of the writing-producing team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, who were responsible for 100 Top 40 singles in the UK during the 1980s and early ‘90s for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Bananarama and a handful of forgotten pop stars. The trio, known collectively as Stock Aitken Waterman, specialized in disco-fied dance-pop that played up its disposable, synthetic pleasures. That meant lots of keyboards and drum machines and bright, soulless saxophones.

With his deep, booming voice and juicy vibrato, Astley was a perfect complement to the trio’s catchy, plastic melodies. Plus, he presented a clean-cut image that made him a cute and inoffensive surrogate boyfriend. And so, the first track off his first album, 1987’s Whenever You Need Somebody, served as his puppy-dog mission statement. Kicking off with syncopated drum noises, “Never Gonna Give You Up” leaned hard on its shiny keyboards and processed horns as Astley professed his devotion to his girl with catnip language like, “A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of / You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.”

A cuddly pinup in touch with his emotions? A song with a supremely sticky chorus? The song became a global hit. If all that wasn’t enough, its accompanying music video was an epic of unthreatening signifiers: dorky dancing, mock turtlenecks, Astley’s baby-faced smiles, some deeply un-funky handclaps, even more dorky dancing.

Lots of horribly cheesy pop songs become massive hits. But “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the best kind of horribly cheesy: It hits your pleasure buttons so shamelessly that its dopey sincerity becomes a kind of integrity. In that hit and his subsequent ones — “Together Forever,” “It Would Take a Strong Man,” “She Wants to Dance With Me” — Astley evinced no discernible personality. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is hokey, but Astley believes in it sincerely, which gives the song a strange kind of conviction.

After 1993’s Body & Soul, his fourth album, Astley went away, deciding to focus on family life with his wife and daughter. Further proof of his authentically cornball demeanor: He said in 2008 that he retired from music because he’d missed his little girl’s first steps. “I didn’t even know she could walk,” he recalled. “I’d missed everything chasing fame.” The man who made his name promising to be Mr. Reliable felt bad that he’d let his daughter down.

That really should have been the end of it for “Never Gonna Give You Up,” save for its occasional appearance on a totally ‘80s station. But in 2007, just when the internet had started becoming a place where inside jokes could flourish, the song found new life. It began with an infamous message board called 4chan, where rickrolling was born. You probably experienced the phenomenon: A friend sends you a link to some supposedly amazing or shocking thing, you click on it and then, wham, you discover you’ve been directed straight to the video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” For those spending lots of time online, getting rickrolled became routine — the internet’s very own version of “The Song That Never Ends.”

At its heart, rickrolling was meant to be a goof, mocking a forgotten pop smash while punking the expectant, unaware person on the receiving end. But perhaps one of the reasons the meme caught fire was because, as we all secretly knew, “Never Gonna Give You Up” is actually kind of wonderful. Rickrolling became a silly little treat — an evergreen April Fools’ Day prank that never actually felt malicious. When you were being rickrolled, you’d know immediately — the song’s opening bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp drums became a sonic signal that you’d been had. Those tinny drums, followed by the initial keyboard flourish, became a giddy soundtrack of your victimization, the song’s vanilla pleasantness taunting your excited anticipation for the thing you thought you were about ready to see.

Rickrolling morphed into such an internet craze that eventually Astley, who still occasionally put out a new album, found out about it. In early 2008, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t mean to belittle [‘Never Gonna Give You Up’], 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.” Later, for Time’s 2009 Time 100 list, Astley wrote a mini profile of 4chan’s founder, Christopher Poole (or “moot”): “I find some Rickrolls really funny. Have you seen the one with President Barack Obama? It’s totally amazing. I find it bonkers, by the way!”

There was something wonderfully, agreeably Astley-ish about his comments. Deep down, he knew that he was being made fun of. But, gosh, he really didn’t care. He would further play into the joke, which he realized would be part of his legacy, by memorably making a surprise appearance at the 2008 Macy’s Day Parade. He emerged from a Cartoon Network float to lip-synch his revitalized hit. Of course, the internet went nuts.

Like “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” or “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” “Never Gonna Give You Up” had been properly re-fashioned for a new age. Sure, there was a bit more irony infused, but that central dopey sweetness survived the transition. (In fact, it was likely why the song was selected in the first place.) Rain or shine, earnest love song or straight-up prank, Rick Astley is never gonna give us up. And he’s never gonna let us down.

Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch and the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.