Re/Cycling the Craze

Shane Vogel, Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); 272 pages; ISBN 978-0226568447 (paperback)

• June 2019

Shane Vogel’s Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze does necessary work of expanding the purview of black fad performance traditions of the early to middle twentieth century. Distinctive about Vogel’s work is its insistence on foregrounding a diasporic cultural relationality between the postwar United States and the Caribbean, by including the calypso craze of the 1950s as part of the genealogy of black fad performances. Thus, this book augments existing scholarship by mapping the calypso craze as a fad incarnation related to the ragtime craze of the 1890s and the Negro vogue craze of the 1920s. In addition, he notes that while other studies focus on the “analysis of representation and performance semiotics,” this study approaches “fad itself as a communicative form” (43). Vogel deftly reads performances across a range of modes including sound recordings, nightclub acts, television specials, musical theater, film, and dance, through which he explicates a “complex and contradictory understanding of this cultural phenomenon” (5). With the diversity of performance texts that form the bases of Vogel’s critical inquiry, this work seamlessly traverses disciplinary boundaries which will make it of particular interest to scholars of performance, critical race, diaspora, literary, film, media, and sound studies.

The book’s name and guiding concept are derived from the musical term tempo rubato that literally translates to “stolen time.” Vogel defines a relationship to time, ontologically, as “the experience from a moment nonsynchronous to itself . . . worked through formally” or a “movement without movement” (33). Stolen time then aligns with the structure of a fad, as fads tend to recur over time while remaining consistent in their short-lived life cycles. Therefore, fads as a recursive phenomenon undercut the notion of linear progress, hence movement without movement. To this point, it is the repeated and truncated life cycle of the fad as a knowable entity that enables black fad performers to steal time, or to steal back time in order to realize “moments of self-determination” during and after the time of the performance, Vogel notes (11, 44). When the nature of the fad cycle is contrasted with the moments of fad—what is old comes back around made new again—there emerge possibilities within these temporal constraints in the looping opportunities for re/invention. In other words, the temporal limits that make a fad itself finite are eliminated because of what becomes possible when black performers leverage this arrested time and so create recurring fad cycles.

The question of in/authenticity is central in contextualizing the politics of black fad performance and the calypso craze. Vogel describes the calypso craze in the United States as “a spectacle of midcentury popular Caribbeana [that] transformed Trinidadian folk culture into a commodity” and rightfully distinguishes between imperialist cultural theft and strategies of black fad performance during the craze (1).1 Harry Belafonte’s disavowal of the craze in its early stages was based on his interpretation of this transformation as an inauthentic misappropriation of Caribbean culture (2). However, Vogel emphasizes this transformation as a process during which the remaking of calypso from Caribbean culture into US mass culture commodity provided a performative space in which tensions between “inauthenticity/authenticity, false/true, improper/proper, ungenuine/genuine, and insincerity/sincerity” are borne out and shown to be irresolvable, and generatively so (7). Vogel argues that what constitutes “the authentic” is indeed conceptually slippery and thus exploitable. As such, he is less interested in finding traces of authenticity in calypso craze performances than he is in marking the strategies that “were invented, critiqued, and imagined through the inauthentic” (5). It is because the authentic cannot be defined with any sense of finality that calypso craze performers could distort prevailing ethnographic notions of blackness and black Caribbean culture predicated on imperialist claims to knowledge. In other words, calypso craze performers reveled in inauthenticity in order to trick the ethnographic ears and gaze to their own ends: to steal time.

In the first chapter, Vogel outlines his stolen-time framework and historicizes the calypso craze in the context of preceding black fad cycles in the US middlebrow culture, Caribbean and US encounters, and black diaspora connection. Here too the life expectancy of a fad is explicated in terms of strategies of market-driven, fleeting patterns of consumption. Vogel explains that “in the face of this precarious temporality fad performers often confront their imminent expiration to produce timeless performances” (61). Chapter 2 examines the calypso craze as “a particular cultural program,” where programming refers to the influence of technology in shaping culture in postwar society (63). Looking at how live and mediated performances worked in tandem to advance the craze, in this discussion Vogel regards media as a “mode of performance” not to be subordinated to the perceived richer critical value of live performance because of its deferred nature (66). Chapter 3 focuses on Duke Ellington’s live telecast A Drum Is a Woman that Vogel argues “appropriated the time of the calypso craze and counterprogrammed the fad to visualize and enact an understanding of the time of diaspora and diaspora as time” (131). Chapter 4 looks at the communal spaces of artistic exchange and “new forms of connection and subjectivity” made possible in the downtime during the black Broadway production Jamaica (137). In the fifth and final chapter Vogel writes about the work of dancer and choreographer Geoffrey Holder during the flagging days of the calypso craze and beyond, and considers how Holder’s “choreographic work demarcated a temporal domain that emerged to the side of both an unchanging ethnographic then and the fleeting present of the fad’s now” (166).

It is in this fifth chapter that the salience of Vogel’s argument resonates. He contrasts Holder’s calculated strategic exploitation of the inauthenticity of the calypso craze with Harry Belafonte’s reluctance to embrace the craze on the basis of this very inauthenticity. Here again, the question of inauthenticity is explicitly taken up, and Vogel argues that not unlike Belafonte, Holder’s acts of disavowal are motivated by a refusal to be constrained by the performance expectations that have been dictated throughout the calypso craze. Where at the beginning of the craze Belafonte disavowed the craze itself, by the end Vogel sees Holder’s work as “a disavowal of the calypso craze’s disavowal” of Caribbean cultural tradition (185). Holder’s disavowal manifested in acts of reclamation is also seen as theft, or stealing back cultural traditions (165). In the discussion of Holder’s artistic work beyond dance, literary analysis makes a surprising appearance as Vogel takes up Holder’s collection of adapted folktales, Black Gods, Green Islands. Vogel’s elegant analysis of this text is truly one of the most generative parts of Stolen Time, that is as pleasurable to read as it is edifying.

While Vogel points out that Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze does not represent an exhaustive study of the topic in this field, there is a rigor and thoroughness about the scope of performances, both type and number, he examines that will serve research projects within the realm of or adjacent to performance studies. His methodology, too, is exemplary in the organization of chapters that foreground a performance and performer to illustrate the chapter’s key concept. Although multiple better-known popular performances are touched on in each chapter, it is Vogel’s focus on and treatment of lesser-known texts that distinguishes his work; most notable among them is Maya Angelou’s recorded live performance in Calypso Heat Wave that is discussed in chapter 2. Vogel’s inclusion of such performances in this book extends their afterlife, exceeding the finitude of allotted time, beyond the archive. In this way, this scholarship demonstrates another one of the ways future time continues to be stolen back by these performances even more than fifty years after the end of the calypso craze.



Treviene A. Harris is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research considers the forms, functions, and representations of sound in early-twenty-first-century Caribbean historical fiction. Her writing has appeared in Critical QuarterlyTrans-Scripts, and in the edited volume Keywords for Today: A 21st-Century Vocabulary (Oxford, 2018).


1 The version of the calypso “Rum and Coca-Cola” by the Andrews Sisters is one example discussed at length to illustrate this difference.