It’s rare for a song’s meaning to change so utterly so long after its release – usually it takes an artist’s death to shift the public’s relationship to a record. But Rick Astley is still thankfully alive, and has reacted to his song’s glorious second life with a jovial – if bemused – good humour. Rickrolling – the practise of hiding links to the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video under apparently innocuous clickthroughs – has transformed his most famous song, turned it into an icon of surprise and the only genuine comedy record on this list. But more than that – rickrolling marked pop’s absorption into internet culture. For music, it’s the equivalent of TIME’s 2006 “Person Of The Year: You” award – except behind that shiny mirror is the benevolent face of a young man with a big voice who’s no stranger to lovin’.
Assuming you trusted that “more” link long enough to reach it, let me offer this explanation. The promise of the social Internet is a democratic promise – not only can anyone create content, but anyone can remix, curate or alter content too. The rickrolling phenomenon applied this principle to the fabric of the web itself – suddenly links, the architecture of interne use, became zones of subversion. Suddenly you didn’t have to be able to remix, you could create an experience simply by the sly deployment of Astley.
The use of the song – the terrible suddenness of Rick – made us ask hard questions about trust, content, the complacency of our expectations. If your illegal download of a leaked and stolen new album turns out to be full of Astley, do you really have the right to be outraged? And when the web group anonymous used “Never Gonna Give You Up” to troll Scientology members rickrolling took on a political dimension. It became a distributed version of punk, and more entryist than New Pop could ever dream of being.
I haven’t talked about the original song or its context in this review because they’ve been thoroughly erased. Whatever the merits of Astley’s recording, its resurrection as a popular everysong is what should concern us now. After all, at the birth of rock’n’roll what made “Rock Around The Clock” so important wasn’t the music but the riots – kids ripping up seats and partying in the aisles, using the music the way they wanted to. The reclamation of “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a moment of equal cultural weight. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the Campbell’s Soup Can of the web 2.0 era, made remarkable through repetition. Hail hail Rick’n’Roll! 10
Obviously, as soon as I realised that this record was next up and that today was April 1st, the above review wrote itself (the clickthrough video will remain as a tribute – you really don’t need to see Rick again.). Do I mean it? Some of it, certainly – maybe not the “Rick Around The Clock” stuff but rickrolling has transformed the song; internet pranks and lulz culture are interesting; I did enjoy writing the phrase “the terrible suddenness of Rick”.
As Tracer says in the comments (#30), there’s a problematic side to Rickrolling when done lazily, a boring and normative fear of naffness. But set against this is the song’s marvellous elasticity as a tool for pranking: the shrieks of entitled horror from Animal Collective fans when a leak of that band’s album turned out to be 11 Rickrolls, the smugness of a presenter on Christ TV announcing they’d rumbled an attempted roll and people shouldn’t bother sending any more in, minutes before reading out a viewer’s prayer about how God would never run around and desert you. The original gotcha! purpose of the Rickroll is long exhausted but there’s occasional life in it yet.
Also I needed to write something about rickrolls to get out from under them and hear the song again. Is it a ten? No, sorry, and I can’t in all honesty give it more than Mel and Kim either. But it’s a good, doughty piece of pop. Astley’s rich, mannered singing doesn’t quite fit with the pumping background, which gives it a slight incongruity to start with and lets his voice stand out even more. Also, for all his natural talent there’s a galumphing earnestness about his delivery which keeps it likeable – you never for a second think he’s spinning his girl a line; this is one of the nice guys. As a record, it’s had immortality thrust upon it, but for all their bone-deep cynicism, the perpetrators of its second fame couldn’t have picked a warmer song.