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The enduring power of Rickrolling: Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ surpasses a billion views on YouTube

Rick Astley performs in London in 1988. (Richard Young/Shutterstock)

You never expect it, even after all this time.

Maybe a buddy sends you a link to a video of Steph Curry draining three after three. Perhaps someone excitedly forwards the new “Dune” trailer. Or a friend really wants you to see a clip of a puppy that’s befriended a duckling.

You get excited. You forget your cybersecurity training. You don’t check the link. You just click.

Just like that, you’re treated to denim-on-denim, bad lip-syncing and a tidal wave of ’80s nostalgia as your speakers unexpectedly belt: “NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP / NEVER GONNA LET YOU DOWN / NEVER GONNA RUN AROUND AND DESERT YOUUUUUUU.

You’ve been Rickrolled.

Since 2007, Rickrolling has been one of the Internet’s most enduring pranks. The conceit is simple enough: Someone sends a link that appears to be to a video, news clip or, really, anything, but the recipient is instead treated to the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

It’s become so popular that on April Fools’ Day alone, the video received more than 2.3 million views. At the end of July, the official version of the video surpassed 1 billion views on YouTube — a rare feat for a pre-Internet music video. It’s only the fourth from the 1980s to reach that rarefied status, alongside Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

Like so many Internet phenomena, it’s impossible to trace the origin of the prank. YouTuber Erik Helwig has claimed that he performed the first Rickroll in 2006, though his was offline. He allegedly called into a local sports radio show and played the song instead of speaking.

“I only picked that song because I really like the song — it’s a great 1980s song that’s fun to laugh at in the best way,” Helwig later told the online magazine Mel. “There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Around the same time, Christopher Poole, the creator of the anonymous message board 4chan, developed a program to change the word “egg” to “duck” on the site as a gag. Every time someone wrote “eggroll,” it would appear as “duckroll.” Eventually someone created an image of a duck on wheels. It soon became a common prank to pull the link bait-and-switch and have it unexpectedly appear on someone’s screen in a practice called “duckrolling.”

Credit for combining these two ideas generally goes to Shawn Cotter. It was 2007 and the first trailer for the highly anticipated video game “Grand Theft Auto IV” crashed because of too much traffic. The then-19-year-old Cotter, who was stationed in Korea with the Air Force, posted a fake link claiming to be another version of the trailer, but it brought the user to the now infamous song.

But why that song? In a 2011 Reddit AMA, or Ask Me Anything, Cotter — who referred to himself as “the one who inadvertently became the biggest troll on the internet” — suggested that choosing Astley’s hit was arbitrary. “I was downloading hits from 1987 (my birth year) from America and Britain,” he wrote. “This one was currently playing and I decided it had the wow-factor to pull people in.”

It swept through the Internet with astounding speed, leaping from 4chan to more mainstream social media websites. Eventually, the concept of Rickrolling smashed through its digital boundaries and entered the real world.

Days after a video featuring Tom Cruise promoting Scientology appeared on YouTube in 2008, masked protesters gathered outside Scientology buildings in Seattle, Hollywood and London, where they held up boomboxes and blared Astley’s hit. Eleven years later, the San Diego Padres tricked visiting Red Sox fans into thinking Petco Park was having a singalong to the Fenway Park anthem “Sweet Caroline,” only to have a video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” pop up on the stadium’s digital billboard.

But what, exactly, makes this funny? Part of early Internet humor’s appeal is its absurdist nature. That it’s impossible to describe why it’s funny is the entire point.

For his part, Astley seems to have taken the prank in stride, pointing out to Rolling Stone that the meme helped introduce him to a new generation while reminding an older one of his glory days.

“It’s done me a lot of good, probably. The thing is it’s not personal to me, even though I know it is me and it’s my name in the title of Rickrolling. It’s that video that I’m in, it’s that song that’s mine, but it could have been anybody,” he said. “If someone had messed around with it and cut it all up and made me look stupid — I mean I look pretty stupid anyway in that video — if it was nasty, then I’d be probably a bit pissed off, but it’s not.”

He’s also taken to real-life Rickrolling, the crowning moment coming during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2008. A float, themed after the Cartoon Network series “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” ambled to a stop. The puppets began singing. Then comes a record scratch. And who pops out in a fitted peacock and black gloves but Astley, singing, well, you know.

“I got paid a bunch of money to do it. I’m honest enough to admit that,” he later told Yahoo News of the parade. “I’ve tried really hard not to embrace the Rickrolling thing, but, to be crude about it, there have been times when people have just offered me so much money. And maybe I had a leaky roof that week or whatever, so I’ve just gone [with it].”

He’s kept at it, appearing with the Foo Fighters at 2017’s Summer Sonic Festival in Japan and performing a mash-up of his famous tune and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

After the music video reached a billion views, he released a limited-edition 7-inch record of the song (which is, unfortunately, much harder to Rickroll someone with). He also posted a video on Twitter, dubbing the accomplishment as “mind-blowing.”

“The world is a wonderful and beautiful place, and I am very lucky,” he added.

You can see his reaction here.

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