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35 years on: How Rick Astley's big hit became the first internet meme

In 1990, Nick Lowe sang ‘All Men Are Liars’. The song included the verse, “Do you remember Rick Astley? He had a big fat hit that was ghastly, he said I’m never gonna give you up or let you down, Well I’m here to tell you that Dick’s a clown.”

It’s a pithy piece of poetry but it was let down by what lay ahead of the song: Just about everyone who spent more than half an hour on a computer between roughly 2006 to 2012 remembers Rick Astley and his big hit perfectly well. In fact, it now resides as one of the most ubiquitous and well-circulated songs in history. Below we are going to delve into the whys and wherefores of this curious tale.

The track dates back to the pre-internet days of 1987. It was, as Lowe asserts, a big fat hit. But of all the songs in all of the world, why was this tune the one that was chosen? Well, its origins date back to the 4Chan message board service in 2006. One of the site’s moderators thought it would be funny to replace all uses of the word ‘egg’ on-site with ‘duck’. Before becoming a hazardous breeding ground for unwelcomed political discourse, the site was known for its irreverent humour, mostly occupied by young men cutting loose in the liberating anonymity of an unmonitored online realm.

One thread on the site happened to be about ‘eggrolls’, thus, this particular discussion page became a ‘duckroll’ thread. When people pondered what a duckroll might be, an anonymous user created an image of a duck on wheels. The image then caught on and created a niche that memes still thrive on: Do you get the joke? Ultimately, if you knew the origin of the confusing image, then you got the joke, and you were in the club, so to speak. For frequent 4Chan users, there was something satisfying about this—there was almost a sense of belonging to be found. 

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There was also something slightly elitist and empowering about it. 4Chan was still a niche site, but in the early days of the internet, it was exercising control. This duckroll image was growing more widespread, and most people online were baffled by it. Therefore, there was something thrilling and exciting about being in the know. After all, it’s always better to be the giggling prankster than the irate person getting pranked.  

Thusly, the image became a sort of totem for the 4Chan community, and its usage was widespread. Then, the impetus for its mutation into rickrolling came about. In March 2007, Grand Theft Auto IV was so hotly anticipated that the site crashed when users went to watch the trailer on mass. One savvy 4Chan user thought of a way to prank desperate fans by posting a link to the video. However, this link actually redirected them to Rick Astley’s big fat hit from yesteryear. This is how duckrolling became rickrolling. 

Aside from the wordplay seeming to fit, there was also something about the song’s instant start-up, the daft dancing and kitsch sound that made it the perfect fit for a rib-tickler. Watch the video for ten seconds, note your anger and then remember that it’s simply a comical thing to be infuriated by. This bait-and-switch prank caught out millions, and in the online universe, when something trends, it is bound to be reused—things just aren’t as ephemeral online. So, from then on, it was used as a widespread pranking tool. By 2008, at least 18 million US adults had been rickrolled. 

However, why didn’t the joke just grow old? Well, as previously stated, that notion of being in the know created somewhat of a snare. This is an internet phenomenon that still continues. All of a sudden, you had religious programmes being pranked with messages saying, “God is never gonna give you up, God is never gonna let you down…” And these messages were being read out loud and proud by earnest pastors.

The sense of online jokers pulling the wool over the mainstream had not only a sense of joyous irreverence about it but also a cutting notion of subversiveness that has been sustained. The joke had a begrudging charm for those who knew what it was about, and for everyone else, it said, ‘Get with the times, Grandad’. 

In this regard, it touched upon an online version of a timeless truth: Humour requires a sense of community. We are more likely to laugh at comedy collectively than we are alone. Being online, however, is the ultimate individual pursuit, thus, this sense of laughing together has mutated into in-joke catchphrases and ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ is a prime example of this. Now, 1.2 billion people have watched the video and the old joke is enjoying somewhat of a nostalgic resurgence. This will probably be a cyclical trend forevermore, as future generations get in line with the classic prank. 

In short, it was the daft irreverence of online anonymity that worked as the set-up for the most famous prank in history and the sense of community that acted as the punchline. With memes, you either get the joke, or you don’t. If you want to know more, you can check out Rick Astley himself, giving a TedTalk on the subject by clicking here.

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