Astley talks about discovering the "Rickroll"
Astley in London last November. (Photo courtesy of TD Promotions)
On a frosty Canadian morning, a masked crusader tromps across a parking lot, over a snow bank and onto the sidewalk. He has a loudspeaker strapped ominously to his chest.
He halts, aiming the speaker toward the building across the street. “This is a song by some dead guy,” he says. And then, music booms forth:
“Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you.”
It’s an anti-Scientology protest, and across the street, a dozen or so warmly dressed young people begin to dance and sing along, waving their picket signs in rhythm to the familiar tune.
“It’s a bit spooky, innit?” said Rick Astley, the singer who made the song famous in 1987 and who is not dead. With considerable help, including assists from RCA Records, the webmaster of Astley’s U.K. fan site, and his manager at Sony BMG, I tracked down Astley at his home in London last weekend. He spoke for the first time about the phenomenon called Rickrolling, best described by example: You are reading your favorite Hollywood gossip blog and arrive at a link urging you to “Click here for exclusive video of Britney’s latest freakout!!” Click you do, but instead of Britney, it’s a dashing 21-year-old Briton that pops onto the screen. You, sir, have been Rickroll’d.
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’s what brilliant about the Internet.”
Saying he thought "Anonymous" Rickrolling Scientology was "hilarious"
Search for Astley’s name on YouTube and you’ll find dozens of instances of the campy, infectious video, which features a heavily coiffed Astley bobbing and swaying behind oversized sunglasses. He’s flanked by two blond backup dancers (one of whom apparently didn’t have the footwork down), and a male bartender in short shorts who excels at spontaneous back flips.
Rickrolling is an example of an Internet “meme” (defined by Wikipedia as “any unit of cultural information ... that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another"). Its less sophisticated memetic forebear is the “duckroll,” where the roll-ee is misdirected to an image of a duck on wheels. And the Rickroll has sired many memelets, including the Fresh Prince roll, the rainroll (plopping you in front of a video of Tay Zonday’s "Chocolate Rain") and even the Reichroll, where Astley’s song is spliced with footage of Adolf Hitler for an unsettling sort of lip sync.
With all the online momentum it’s gathered, the Rickroll has now trundled its way into the real world, too. The spectacle of trench-coated pranksters blaring the song into unsuspecting crowds has become a symbol of harmless, geeky rebellion. As the blog LAist.com noted last week, and the New York Times reported Tuesday, a recent basketball game at Eastern Washington University was interrupted by a dancing Astley imitator, and there’s now a small YouTube library of the anti-Scientology group “Anonymous” Rickrolling different church locations.
Why have people picked up on the song so much?
For his part, Astley was nothing if not modest about his new cultural role. “If this had happened around some kind of rock song, with a lyric that really meant something -- a Bruce Springsteen, "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.”
Astley would never put the song down, mind you. It’s just that, as he says, “If I was a young kid now looking at that song, I’d have to say I’d think it was pretty naff, really.”
(Wikipedia on “naff”: British slang for “something which is seen to be particularly ‘cheesy’ or ‘tacky’ or in otherwise poor aesthetic taste.”) “For me it’s a good example of what some of the ’80s were about in that pop sort of music way. A bit like you could say Debbie Gibson was absolutely massive, but if you look back at it now ... do you know what I mean?”
Yes, I think we do. But even still, with all the renewed attention to his work and his — albeit 20-year-old — image, does Astley have any plans to cash in on Rickrolling, maybe with his own YouTube remix?
“I don’t really know whether I want to be doing that,” he said. “ I’m not being an ageist, but it’s almost a young person’s thing, that.”
“I think the artist themselves trying to remix it is almost a bit sad,” he said. “No, I’m too old for that.”
Astley, who will be touring the U.K. in May with a group of other ’80’s acts, including Bananarama, and Nick Heyward, Heaven 17, Paul Young and ABC, sums up his thoughts on his unexpected virtual fame with characteristic good humor:
“Listen, I just think it’s bizarre and funny. My main consideration is that my daughter doesn’t get embarrassed about it.”
Are you going to try to capitalize on the whole thing?