Rick Astley has had one of the most bizarre second acts in music history. The pompadoured vocalist behind a string of ’80s smashes hits found fame in the new millennium as a viral superstar thanks to the Internet craze known as “Rick-Rolling.”
What is Rick-Rolling, you ask? It’s a bait and switch involving a website hyperlink secretly swapped out with Astley’s so-cheesy-that-it’s-awesome music video for 1987’s immortal “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (This tutorial will tell you all about it.)
Within months of the first Rick-Roll. the meme became a worldwide sensation that record labels could only dream about. The song racked up tens of millions of YouTube views, and Astley was thrust back into the limelight – even earning a spot in the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
While speaking with PEOPLE, the 50-year-old singer revealed that he first learned of the phenomenon while being pranked himself.
“A friend of mine Rick-Rolled me a couple of times, and I didn’t really know what he was doing. I just thought he was being an idiot,” he admits now. “I just kept thinking, ‘What is this idiot doing? This is just not amusing. I don’t really know what’s going on.’ So we eventually got on the phone and he explained it to me.”
Even with an explanation, it took some time to sink in. “To be honest, I still didn’t really get it. It took a few weeks for me to grasp.”
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While he says the phenomenon “has been a positive thing,” it remains more than a tad surreal for him. “It’s just weird because I’m that guy in that video,” he says. “When I look back it’s like, ‘Yes, that’s me, I was there. I did make that video.’ So it’s quite a difficult thing to come out of yourself and look back at something like that..”
For Astley, the experience is akin to being confronted with an awkward old school photo – over and over and over again.
“When people ask me if I’m embarrassed by some of the ’80s videos, I say: ‘Well, kind of.’ But if you look back at some video clips of you getting married or some college thing you did, most people would be pretty embarrassed by that as well. If you put 25 years on something, it gets a bit interesting.”
These days Astley is busy on the road playing songs from 50 – his first album of all-original material in 15 years. Out in the United States this October, the disc shot to No. 1 when it was released in the U.K. last June.
Even with all of his recent success, he reflects on his Internet superstardom with good humor. “I only view it as a positive thing. I don’t think you can really have any bad thoughts about an Internet prank that turned your song into a global moment.”