By Neal Kirmer
Way back in the year 2007, an internet prank began. Rickrolling quickly went from prank to internet phenomenon. That phenomenon continues to this day.
How did it become such a ubiquitous prank and how has it persisted for so long?
Rickrolling started, as apparently most things do, on 4Chan. One young airman wanted to create something that would get a lot of attention on the site. While idly searching the top songs for the year he was born, Sean Cotter stumbled across the song “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley (hence Rickrolling).
Cotter decided to create a link, title it something that people would click on (think “dog and cat best friends”), and once people followed the link they were directed not to their expected video, but to the music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
This harmless prank spread far and wide. There was a time when you feared that any link you clicked on would send you to the video. On April 1, 2008, YouTube Rick Rolled the world by redirecting the featured videos on its homepage to “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Still to this day people know what it is to be “Rickolled”.
One reason for the success of “Rickrolling” lies in its innocence. There is nothing harmful or spiteful about the prank.
Those who share it do so in good nature. Those who are on the receiving end don’t get mad, at least not genuine anger. The reaction is almost universally accompanied by a smile.
Watch any reaction video to someone being “Rickrolled” and you will see, in the vast majority, people sincerely smile and/or laugh.
The artist himself plays a role in its popularity. Rick Astley is not the individual that you expected to see upon hearing his voice before seeing the man.
The voice we hear is of someone older, someone who has seen the world. Juxtapose that with the image of Astley, a tall, skinny, pale, red headed young man from England.
The contradiction between what we hear and see lends itself to the joke. Not in a mean way, but in a “holy cow that is not what I expected” way. Like the intention of the prank, the unexpected is what makes it funny.
Then there is the dancing. Astley, to put it simply, cannot dance. He shuffles back and forth in an awkward manner. In fact, the awkward manner of his dancing again adds to the joke and yet again not in a malicious way.
Astley will be the first to say that he could not dance.
“That’s why we had professional dancers,” Astley said.
The goofiness of the dancing seems to add even more to the joke. If he could move like Michael Jackson, something of the joke would be lost.
The song itself is the final piece of the puzzle as to why the joke succeeded and lasted. The song starts abruptly with a synthesized drum.
The abrupt start immediately grabs the attention of the victim, but not in a violent way. If the song had started with a loud guitar chord or loud vocals the joke wouldn’t work.
The synthesized drum is yet another part of the joke. It is out of place, outdated and awkward. It along with the compounding awkwardness of the dancing, out of place vocals and out of place singer completes the joke. It doesn’t hurt that the song is good, it did hit number one in 25 countries including the United States.
I do not think that you could find a better confluence of circumstances. You could search the entirety of the internet in search of a song, video and artist better suited for this prank and you would fail.
Perhaps that is part of the appeal. The randomness of someone looking up popular songs for the year they were born and just happening to land on this particular song is in and of itself weird, awkward and innocent.
The innocence and genuine awkwardness of the whole thing is what makes it work. The internet is full of terrible people and ideas.
The fact that we, as a society, seem to have held on to this one wholesome joke for so long speaks volumes. It tells the dark parts of this world that good still exists.