On a frosty Canadian morning, a masked crusader tromps across a parking lot, over a snow bank and onto the sidewalk. He has a loudspeaker strapped ominously to his chest.
He halts, aiming the speaker toward the building across the street. "This is a song by some dead guy," he says. And then, music booms forth:
"Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you."
It's an anti-Scientology protest, and a dozen or so warmly dressed young people begin to dance and sing along, waving their picket signs in rhythm to the familiar tune.
The scene was, of course, posted on YouTube.
"It's a bit spooky, innit?" said Rick Astley, the singer who made the song famous in 1987 and is not dead. With considerable help, including assists from RCA Records, the webmaster of Astley's U.K. fan site, and his manager at Sony BMG, I recently tracked down Astley at his home in London. He spoke for the first time about the phenomenon called Rickrolling, best described by example: You are reading your favorite Hollywood gossip blog and arrive at a link urging you to "Click here for exclusive video of Britney's latest freakout!!" Click you do, but instead of Britney, it's a dashing 21-year-old Briton who pops onto the screen. You, sir, have been Rickroll'd.
Over the last year or so, Astley has watched with puzzled amazement as "Never Gonna Give You Up" has been mocked, celebrated, remixed and reprised, its original music video viewed millions of times on YouTube, all by a generation that could barely swallow its Gerber carrots when the song first topped the pop charts.
"I think it's just one of those odd things where something gets picked up and people run with it," Astley said. "But that is what's brilliant about the Internet."
Search for Astley's name on YouTube and you'll find dozens of instances of the campy, infectious video, which features a heavily coiffed Astley bobbing and swaying behind oversized sunglasses. He's flanked by two blond backup dancers (one of whom apparently didn't have the footwork down) and a male bartender in short-shorts who excels at back flips.
Rickrolling is an example of an Internet "meme" (defined by Wikipedia as "a unit of cultural information . . . that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another." Its less sophisticated memetic forebear is the "duckroll," in which the roll-ee is misdirected to an image of a duck on wheels. The Rickroll has sired many memelets, including the Fresh Prince Roll, the RainRoll (plopping you in front of a video of Taye Zonday's "Chocolate Rain") and even the ReichRoll, in which Astley's song is spliced with footage of Adolf Hitler for an unsettling sort of lip sync.
With all the online momentum it's gathered, the Rickroll has now trundled its way into the real world. The spectacle of trench-coated pranksters blaring the song into unsuspecting crowds has become a symbol of harmless, geeky rebellion. There's now a small YouTube library of Rickrolling actions by the anti-Scientology group Anonymous at church locations.
Adding to the mystique, the New York Times was apparently hoaxed Tuesday when it reported, using a YouTube video of a supposedly Rickrolled basketball game at Eastern Washington University as evidence, that a dancing Astley imitator disrupted the game as the song played over the PA system. (A Spokane NBC affiliate reported that the YouTube video was faked.)
For his part, Astley was nothing if not modest about his new cultural role. "If this had happened around some kind of rock song, with a lyric that really meant something -- a Bruce Springsteen [song], "God Bless America" . . . or an anti-something kind of song, I could kind of understand that," Astley said. "But for something as -- and I don't mean to belittle it, because I still think it's a great pop song -- but it's a pop song, do you know what I mean, it doesn't have any kind of weight behind it, as such. But maybe that's the irony of it."
It's just that, as he says, "If I was a young kid now looking at that song, I'd have to say I'd think it was pretty naff, really." (Wikipedia on "naff": British slang for "something which is seen to be particularly 'cheesy' or 'tacky' or in otherwise poor aesthetic taste.") "For me it's a good example of what some of the '80s were about in that pop sort of music way. A bit like you could say Debbie Gibson was absolutely massive, but if you look back at it now . . . do you know what I mean?"
Yes, I think we do. Still, Astley is getting a lot of attention. Does he have any plans to cash in on Rickrolling, maybe with his own YouTube remix?
"I don't really know whether I want to be doing that," he said. " I'm not being an ageist, but it's almost a young person's thing, that."
"I think the artist themselves trying to remix it is almost a bit sad," he said. "No, I'm too old for that."
Astley, who will be touring the U.K. in May with a group of other '80s acts including Bananarama, Nick Heyward, Heaven 17, Paul Young and ABC, sums up his thoughts on his unexpected virtual fame with characteristic good humor: "Listen, I just think it's bizarre and funny. My main consideration is that my daughter doesn't get embarrassed about it."