Sunday, March 31, 2013

Explaining (away?) the humor: Rickrolling 5 years out

April 1, 2013 marks the fifth anniversary of the height of Rickrolling, or the the willful misdirection of Internet users to various versions of British singers Rick Astley's 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up." 5 years ago today, Rickrolling was the joke du jour. The question that I want to ask today is: Why did “Never Gonna Give You Up” become so popular as an Internet video prank? Three reasons explain its appropriateness: popularity, incongruity, and catchiness. (1) 

Popularity: He's never letting us go

The first is the song’s recognizability and popularity. When "Never Gonna Give You Up" was released in 1987, it catapulted the Astley from relative obscurity to international stardom, topping the charts in numerous countries on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a catchy melody and a beat designed for dancing. The song has continued to be played with relative frequency on eighties radio stations across the United States, becoming associated with the eighties in general.

Incongruity: A duck with wheels?


Additionally, like it's predecessor duckrolling, the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” itself is incongruous, and so lends itself to being used to accentuate humor incongruity. Rick Astley’s deep voice seems strange coming out of his young, Caucasian body. His idiosyncratic dancing and the outdated, seemingly exaggerated eighties clothing and hairstyle add to the humor of the video’s unexpected positioning. Even the music itself, with its proliferation of dated synthesizers and synth-drums, seems out of place in contemporary popular music. Thus, when the Internet user is confronted with an incongruous video with incongruous music in an incongruous situation, the experience is so unexpected that it becomes humorous.

Catchiness: a technical term

Many eighties’ music videos appear dated to the point of absurdity to us in the twenty-first century, but “Never Gonna Give You Up” combines this dated appearance with music that continues to be catchy. The features that make it catchy and musically popular also make it a good joke. Both its introduction (the first thing people being Rickrolled hear) and its chorus can be categorized as “earworms,” a term made popular by David Levitin to describe the psycho-acoustical phenomenon of how your brain will repeatedly replay brief snippets of music (2). Because the brain involuntarily replays the music, it can continue to annoy someone for long periods even after only one hearing.

An earworm is more effective for pranks as its music is more easily remembered, and “Never Gonna Give You Up” is full of short, repeating motives (or short, recognizable music units) that serve this purpose of easy, unconscious memorization. The introduction begins with a short three-note motive played on a synthesizer that is immediately sequenced (or repeated at a different pitch level). At the same time, the rhythmic bass line also begins with a motive that is also immediately sequenced at a higher pitch level. These two integrated sequences return several seconds later. The chorus functions in the same way—the vocal line is constructed of a seven-note melodic phrase that is sequenced three times. Immediately, these three iterations are repeated (with some alteration to prevent boredom). To complete the artful construction, the chorus vocal melody is layered on top of the introduction melody, making the whole chorus a construct of three different short sequencing motives heard many times in the short fifteen-second time span of the chorus, the perfect length for an earworm. This fifteen-second chorus is played six times within the three-and-a-half minute span of the song (not including the introduction), making it even easier to remember after only one listening.

Teaching new meaning to old dogs

To understand about how these features, the incongruous images and catchy music, can gain new meanings, let's look at the original Grand Theft Auto prank, where Rickrolling got its ignominious start. As those looking for the video game trailer are misdirected to a new music video, they feel disappointment at not viewing what they expected. They now associate this disappointment with what they see now, the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” (3). Instead of the song’s original signification and content, a pop song about love, the song now signifies being misdirected. Instead of an enjoyable event that one experiences by choice, hearing the song or viewing the video becomes a disappointment or punishment. The incongruous elements embedded in the video, which were unimportant to the original intent, are exaggerated and foregrounded along with the song’s ability to replay inside one’s head long after the initial exposure. Internet communities have been successful in imposing this new meaning.

The lyrics of “Never Gonna Give You Up” facilitate its transformation into a subversive prank. The lyrics contain a wealth of data for manipulation and reinterpretation. For example, the initial lyrics of the chorus, “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down,” can now be interpreted to mean that Rick is pervasive and ubiquitous on the Internet. Once he has found you in cyberspace, you cannot escape from him. He will always show up when he is needed, i.e. when you are searching for information and need misdirection. In accordance to this new interpretation, after a subject has been Rickrolled multiple times, he or she may exclaim in exasperation “I wish you would give me up, Rick!” The Internet prankster may also take this meaning to heart and try to plant Rick in as many places as possible to prove that Rick will never “give [us] up.”

Well, not all that disappointing

Despite the new meanings the song has easily gained, Rickrolling as an annoying prank is problematic—some people enjoy being Rickrolled. As pranks go, this is not a malicious one. It does not contain a computer virus or material that some would deem inappropriate. The lyrics to the song are clean and inoffensive. Someone being Rickrolled for the first time might not even realize that they had been purposely misdirected or that the experience was somehow undesirable.

The music itself could be blamed for this lack of annoying power. Evidence suggests this song is still enjoyable to many people now, twenty years after its release. In April 2008 after YouTube’s April Fool’s joke, in which the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” received an estimated 6.6 million views in one day as the site linked all of the videos on its main page to the song, enough people bought a digital copy of the recording to raise it to number 77 on Amazon's downloads (4). Some people were happy to hear this music. This popularity might be related to eighties nostalgia—the generation of people most comfortable with the Internet right now grew up in the eighties, and to that generation the period and its music may now signify a happier and simpler time. The video’s first use as a prank in place of the Grand Theft Auto trailer may have been celebrating the song’s twentieth anniversary. Or perhaps the song is constructed well enough that it has found a new audience that did not hear it during its initial popularity.

Well, I hope in my attempt to explain why something is popular and funny, I didn't suck the enjoyment out of the joke. Happy April Fools!

Vocab: earworm, motive, sequence

1. This post is excerpted and adapted from a paper I wrote for an Ethnomusicology class.
2. Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Penguin, 2006), 151. 
3. This appropriation through placement in what Roland Barthes calls second-order signification, or De Certeau's textual "poaching."
4. Katie Hasty, “Rick Around the Net,” Billboard: The International Newsweekly of Music, Video and Home Entertainment 120 (12 April 2008): 44. 


  1. I just got Rickrolled. It's far from dead.

  2. Interesting essay. I'm disappointed, however, that you never mentioned (in my opinion) the best rickrolling of all of them - When Rick Astley, himself, rickrolled the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

    1. I talked about Macy's Day parade Rickroll in the longer essay, but I cut it out of this post because my view is different than most; I see that Rickroll as a corporate appropriation by NBC to try and appeal to the online community. Which worked, from what I gather talking to people. There were several problems, I thought: The Macy's Day Rickroll was organized instead of a prank (one of the Imaginary Friends on the float exclaimed rather loudly and pointedly, “I like Rickrolling!”), NBC almost gave the surprise away before it happened, and having the real Astley took away the video's incongruity. Rickrolling is meant to be anti-establishment, and this was anything but. It was like someone's parent's trying on their kid's clothes to try and be cool. That's my two cents, but I know people disagree with me.