By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Not many 1980s pop songs have inspired a world-famous meme, but ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley certainly has that claim to fame. The song – one of the catchiest of tunes released through the powerhouse that was Stock Aitken and Waterman – is often derided and dismissed, but it deserves more credit than it usually gets.
Why? Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, and the ingredients that go into making this such a memorable and infectious number.
‘Never Gonna Give You Up’: song meaning
The song is a love song in which the singer pledges his commitment to his beloved. He acknowledges that they’ve both been in love before and they know what’s expected. They’re not in it for messing around any more. And the singer is prepared to commit fully to his sweetheart. Indeed, he believes he’s the only one who can promise her complete devotion.
The chorus to the song, with its use of the rhetorical device of anaphora (whereby the same word or words are repeated at the beginnings of successive clauses: here, ‘never gonna …, never gonna …’), sees the singer list eight ways in which he is going to make good on his promise to commit to her.
He will never give up on her or disappoint her. He will never cheat on her or desert her when she needs him. He’ll never make her unhappy, never leave her, never lie to her, and never hurt her.
The second verse reveals that he and his beloved have known each other a long time, and she has liked him for a while, but she’s been too shy to broach the issue with him. But she knows him well, so she can surely see that he’s sincere and he means every word when he pledges his devotion to her.
‘Never Gonna Give You Up’: analysis
The lyrics to this Stock Aitken and Waterman track may not be poetry, but the song is a classic example of what the Hit Factory did so well: it’s a song in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Read the lyrics on the page, and we feel we’re reading some earnest teenager’s attempt at poetry for his sweetheart, telling her how much she means to him. Listen to the bass line and it’s certainly infectious, but nothing more on its own.
But when the music, lyrics, and – perhaps most importantly – Rick Astley’s deep and soulful voice are put together, a track like ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ becomes an earworm to devour all other earworms, the kind of song that evokes memories and inspires wannabe love poets all over the world the first time it’s heard, but with the strange potential to become, on the tenth or twelfth play, the sort of track they might play to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
So ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ succeeds by a kind of alchemy, whereby the various ingredients add up to something that manages to transcend the individual units that constitute it. Is it art? No. Is it great pop? Indubitably.
Rick Astley had been playing in a band for several years (initially as the drummer) before he became lead vocalist and came to the attention of Stock Aitken and Waterman, who signed him to their record label – originally, so it is said, as the ‘tea boy’. His rich, soulful voice is undoubtedly part of the song’s success: one cannot imagine a cover version working for this reason (although Brian from Family Guy made a heroic attempt).
And if ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ reminds you of another 1980s song, it’s probably Colonel Abrams’ 1985 hit ‘Trapped’: another track with a deep lead vocal and a heavy bassline. Indeed, ‘Trapped’ would prove to be an important influence on the later track.
In 2007, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ was given a new lease of life thanks to Rickrolling: that phenomenon whereby an internet link sends an unsuspecting web-user to the video for Astley’s song.
Although such a meme was presumably dreamt up on the basis that there is something slightly naff about the 1987 song, it’s actually aged surprisingly well – especially when placed alongside other Stock Aitken Waterman efforts like the Reynolds Girls’ ‘I’d Rather Jack’.