Anatomy of a Music Video: Duality, Gesture, and Power Dynamics in The Carters' "APES**T"

Illustration by Jess Suttner.

Illustration by Jess Suttner.

Similar to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” The Carters’ music video for “APESH**T” refrains from launching immediately into music, and instead pauses to cleanse the viewer’s palette, signifying that what is to come is meant to be digested thoughtfully. In a world where viewers consume media ravenously—where we’re trained to “skip ads” on YouTube and “skip intros” on Netflix reflexively, without thought or hesitation—“APESH**T” slows us down and provides a preface full of visual and auditory cues that speak to themes that will be explored in the video, and represented in the music.

From the start, The Carters’ “APES**T” invokes historic structures of power: following a few beats of an empty screen, police sirens blare over the distant ringing of church bells. The first figure shown, rather than Beyoncé or Jay-Z, is a young black man crouching to his knees, wringing his hands, with angel wings strapped to his back. The distant bell chimes again as the viewer is shown the ornate vaulted ceiling of the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollo, referencing the museum’s past as a royal palace and grounding the viewer with a sense of place. The ceiling is illuminated by red and blue light, and with a siren still blaring in the distance, suggests the menacing presence of police. In the same spirit that “Lemonade” calls upon imagery of the American South to unpack divisive issues of race in the United States, here The Carters set their scene in Paris, calling the viewers’ attention to racism on a global scale.

At this point, the song still hasn’t started; the camera proceeds to pause on detail shots of classical Western paintings, the kind one might expect to encounter in an encyclopedic museum like the Met or on the page of an art history “survey” textbook. Caucasian tousled hair and pale flesh rendered in oil not only reflect the white skin that dominates representation in the work of Western art history, at least as the subject has been taught for centuries, but also calls to mind the artists who created the work we’ve been taught to celebrate (predominantly white men), the patrons who commissioned the work that has come to be celebrated (predominantly white men), the art historians who selected the work to be celebrated (until more recently, predominately white men) and eventually the museum directors who displayed the work to be celebrated (to this day, predominantly white men).

Thus, within the first frames of the video, without a single note played or lyric spoken, The Carters invite the audience to consider this white-washed cultural history we’ve come to accept, and question the structures of power that put this narrative into place. Less than sixty seconds into the video, eerie lighting, loaded iconography, and subtle audio cues alone draw the viewer’s attention to the history of oppression against people of color perpetuated by the law and the church over centuries.

The first notes of the song begin, and the camera slowly pans closer to Beyoncé and Jay-Z standing stoically in a gallery in Paris’ Louvre Museum, framed within the geometric pattern of harsh institutional ceiling lights above. The space is cold and empty, and the pair are dwarfed by massive paintings lining the walls salon-style. The couple stands in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–06), wearing neutral expressions that mirror the anonymous subject’s infamous coy smile. Wearing pastel-colored suits and ornate jewelry, The Carters stand beneath the Mona Lisa (or rather, more predominately, in front of her) as though descendants.

The camera slowly pans to Beyoncé and Jay-Z standing at the top of a grand stairwell in the Museum above rows of female dancers, who lie upon each step in neutral- and flesh-colored leotards, drawing attention to each figure’s individual skin tone. The Carters stand hand-in-hand dressed in white at the foot of the Nike of Somothrace (ca. 190 BCE), the wings of the sculpture outstretched above each of their heads, seemingly embracing them, creating a figurative pyramid, and subtly referencing the male “angel” at the beginning of the video. The dancers are eerily still until the beat drops, provoking the bodies to come to life, rising as though activated by The Carters’ music.

As the first verse begins, Beyoncé raps while seated alone at the base of Nike of Somothrace—“I can’t believe we made it / this is what we’re thankful for”—then dances alongside a line of women of color in front of Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Coronation of Napoleon (ca. 1807). The act of moving in front of the paintings and sculptures, in this first verse and throughout the video, both draws attention to the objects’ stillness and the potential sterility of museums; her movement also infuses, or perhaps overshadows, the objects with life and fresh relevance.

This pairing of movement and still image is explored throughout the video, as close shots of paintings and sculptures are quickly followed by dancers of color responding with carefully articulated movements: an image of the armless ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo (ca. 101 BC) is followed by a black performer dancing with his arms pulled behind his back; a row of women stand single file weaving their heads back and forth at the base of the headless Nike of Somothrace statue; and a close-up of a figures’ hands within a portrait are paired with delicate and gestured choreography.

The duality and symmetry of these moments draw the viewers’ attention to the similarity between the dancers and the bodies portrayed in the artwork, and therefore the distinction that none of the works shown depict the bodies of people of color. Interspersed with these dance sequences are seemingly mundane scenes of a black couple kissing on a bed and a woman having her hair braided. These moments offer a sense of both recognition at the absence of black bodies in these artworks, as well as a reclamation of the beauty within these small moments that are charged with poetic or symbolic meaning. These “epic banal” scenes (a poetic phrase I first overheard from black cinematographer Ramell Ross) are charged with the same visual poetry and grandeur as the scenes of The Carters dressed extravagantly as though royalty.

The Louvre thus becomes but a backdrop for The Carters, who sit confidently within the Museum’s halls as though seated on a throne. “APSH**T” therefore joins a lineage of performances and videos in which the artists reclaim spaces that have historically and symbolically represented exclusivity and discrimination, including Jay-Z’s 2013 “Picasso Baby” performance in New York’s Pace Gallery with Marina Abramović and Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album “Lemonade” set in Southern plantation homes. Through setting and symbol alone, “APESH**T” criticizes these spaces, actively shifting power dynamics in their favor.

-Marissa Passi