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How to Build an Empire (Taylor’s Version)

Taylor Swift just broke a Grammys record and announced a new album—and she still has an (almost certain) appearance at the Super Bowl to come. It’s safe to say we’re living through her unprecedented imperial phase. But just how massive is it? Is it even her first? And will it ever end?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To Tom Ewing’s knowledge, only two prominent musical artists have publicly used the phrase “imperial phase”: Neil Tennant and Taylor Swift.

Tennant, the taller half of British synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys, coined the term in his notes for a 2001 reissue of the group’s 1987 album, Actually. Ewing helped popularize it in a 2010 piece for Pitchfork. And Swift completed the trifecta last December, when she invoked the concept in an interview for the cover story that accompanied her selection as the first entertainer to be named Time’s Person of the Year. As the author of the piece, Sam Lansky, wrote: “She went full-throttle pop for 2014’s 1989, putting her on top of the world—‘an imperial phase,’ she calls it.”

Ewing, who writes about no. 1 songs, has become a kind of oracle of the imperial phase ever since he introduced the idea to anyone who couldn’t already quote the liner notes for Pet Shop Boys reissues. So it didn’t take long for him to be alerted to the fact that the world’s most imperial pop star had veered into his lane with a metatextual take on her career. “I got a message saying, ‘Oh my God, have you seen this?’” he says. “And I thought it was very funny.”

It was also potentially telling, as Ewing saw it, that Swift was the second pop star to employ the self-referential phrase. Swift’s fame is to Tennant’s as Tennant’s is (or was) to a subway busker’s, yet the two share a common quality. “Both Neil Tennant and Taylor Swift think very carefully about their careers, about their career moves, about the shape of their careers, and the ‘What did I do before? What am I going to do now?’” Ewing says. “There’s a real level of directional thinking, which obviously is balanced against instinct and all the other things that creators have. But both of them, they feel like the kind of stars who would think in those slightly helicopter-view terms.”

Those terms are where this term comes in handy, however vague it is. Tennant applied it to a roughly yearlong run of chart-topping singles from 1987-88, a period when Pet Shop Boys, he said, possessed “the secret of contemporary pop music” and “knew what was required.” When Ewing attempted to refine the definition further in 2010, he proposed three prerequisites: “command, permission, and self-definition.” In other words, being in the zone, creatively; generating “public interest, excitement, and goodwill” toward one’s work; and forever being associated with and judged against that work.

Taylor Swift performs during The Eras Tour concert at SoFi Stadium Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ewing also intimated that imperial phases are inherently short-lived: They’re “accelerated moments in a career, times where intense scrutiny meets intense opportunity,” which makes them “a mix of world-conquering swagger and inevitable obsolescence.” According to Tennant, Pet Shop Boys’ phase ended in September ’88, when “Domino Dancing,” whose Latin sound represented a departure for the group, debuted at no. 9 on the U.K. charts—a relatively chilly reception to the lead single from their (on the whole, pretty popular) third album, Introspective.

If Tennant—himself a former music journalist during a pre-imperial, early-’80s stint as an editor of Smash Hits—hadn’t supplied such a seductive designation, some other expression would suffice. We could call one of these fleeting, incandescent streaks “owning the moment,” as Ewing did elsewhere in his seminal piece. We could call it “being on a roll.” We could even call it “Reaganing,” if we were Jack Donaghy. It’s more than a mere creative and/or commercial peak, though it often overlaps with one; it’s the point when a pop star seemingly can’t make a misstep. Cyndi Lauper was sensational; Madonna was imperial.

Last year, Swift was the world’s most-streamed artist on Spotify, and five of the top 10 albums in the U.S. (including two rerecordings of old albums) were hers. This Sunday, Swift swallowed the Grammys, becoming the first artist to win Album of the Year four times and announcing her next album, The Tortured Poets Department—available April 19, preorder now—during her acceptance speech for Best Pop Vocal Album (just as she announced Midnights during her acceptance speech for Video of the Year at the 2022 VMAs). Next Sunday, her boyfriend will be in the Super Bowl, with Swift presumably looking on—which, in a sign of her status, is seen as a windfall for the NFL. In between, she’ll play four shows at the Tokyo Dome on the Eras Tour, which has broken revenue records both live and in theaters (and threatened to topple the ticketing cartel).

By all appearances, she’s in love and beloved, except by right-wingers who say she’s a psyop. Even those conspiracy theories are, in some sense, a testament to Swift’s ever-increasing sway: You have to be pretty popular and powerful for people to posit that the country’s preeminent entertainment (professional football) could be rigged in your favor or that your endorsement could decide the presidential election. Swift has gone imperial before, but never quite like this.

The appeal of the imperial phase is its potential to impose precision on the nebulous arena of artistic achievement. It’s a rubric that makes it possible to apply sports-style analysis to art—to delineate dynasties in the absence of objective indicators such as winning percentages and championships. Yet even in sports, dynasty definitions are divisive and squishy, and half the fun of discussing imperial phases is trying to pinpoint when they start and stop. We can have this debate about Taylor, too. (Though even Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless can’t muster a contrarian Taylor take.) Shockingly, Swift’s publicist did not respond to my request for clarification about how Swift defines the “imperial phase” and how she views her “eras” in relation to it. Thus, it falls to us to classify the success of the inescapable star.

However we slice it, Swift is unique. The difficulty lies in determining the exact way in which her supremacy is unprecedented. So why consider just one way? With assistance from Ewing and other Swift whisperers, let’s examine three possible interpretations of Taylor’s career through the lens of the imperial phase: that she’s had the most imperial phases ever; that she’s had the longest imperial phase ever; and that she’s simply transcended the idea of the imperial phase, rendering the notion obsolete.

The Most Imperial Phases

Last October, Billboard published a staff ranking of the 500 best pop songs that have made the Hot 100 since its genesis in 1958. “Anti-Hero,” the lead single from Taylor’s 10th album, 2022’s Midnights, placed 364th. Billboard called it “the undeniable four-quadrant pop detonation to blast off Taylor Swift’s third and somehow-biggest-yet imperial phase.”

Three imperial phases! That’s one for each Cleon clone on Foundation that Demerzel calls “Empire.” It’s one for each Napoleon named Emperor of the French. It’s one for each incarnation of Swift in the “Anti-Hero” video!

That “Anti-Hero” blurb was written by Billboard deputy editor Andrew Unterberger, who explains his thinking via email: “Not scientific, obviously, but I’d generally say her two prior imperial phases were the Fearless era (2008–2009) and the 1989 era (late 2014–early 2016)—two absolutely monster blockbuster albums with myriad hit singles, award wins, and plenty of extracurricular stuff both on and off-record. (And two extremely defined and distinct periods where it generally seemed like she was everywhere and could basically do no wrong.)”

Swift was the bestselling album artist of 2008, and Fearless, which made Swift the youngest artist ever to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, was the bestselling album of 2009. On the other hand, none of the singles from Fearless went to no. 1 (even though the album did), and critics weren’t overwhelmed.

There’s no disputing Taylor’s contention that the 1989 boom was an imperial phase. As for what’s happening now, Ewing says, “It’s huge and fits the definition of an imperial phase, except for the fact that she’s already had her imperial phase.” Just to play devil’s advocate, Ewing notes, “What she’s doing now, so much of it is about looking back and career overview. The Rolling Stones don’t go into a new imperial phase every time they do a massive, arena, ‘This is all our hits’ [tour]. ... So it can’t just be ‘OK, it’s making an unbelievable amount of money.’” As Ewing acknowledges, though, it’s not just that: It’s Midnights, it’s the concert film that’s “more like an artistically arranged retrospective,” and it’s the “astonishing marketing coup” of turning the traditionally “slightly desperate,” post-imperial tactic of rerecording classic albums into a means of empowerment. (Which helped inspire other artists to do the same.) Heck, if eliciting “public interest, excitement, and goodwill” is a key component, then maybe meet-cutes and kisses with Travis Kelce count too.

Thus, if we accept Unterberger’s version of events—and does a Fearless-era imperial phase seem like such a stretch?—Swift may already be in uncharted territory. Very few of the artists in the ultra-selective imperial-phase club have had a second one, let alone an imperial trilogy. Ewing argues that even though the Beatles never ceased to be popular, they had two separate imperial phases—the mop-top, British Invasion, “yeah, yeah, yeah” imperial phase and the bearded, druggy, studio-only imperial phase, each of which received its own greatest hits compilation. David Bowie had two, Ewing adds, sandwiching the critically acclaimed but less mainstream Berlin Trilogy. “If you could locate three distinct ones,” Ewing says, “then, yeah—three distinct ones, I think, would be unique.”

Madonna may be the closest competitor. “If you think of the ’87, ’88 period as a dip, then she has one, and then she comes back with Like a Prayer and has another one,” Ewing says. “And then does she have a third one with Ray of Light and Music? That’s a possibility. … But I don’t think that she monopolized world attention to the extent that she did in the Like a Virgin and Blond Ambition eras.” Admittedly, one could say the same about Fearless-era Taylor; her ascendance since then—in contrast to other imperialists of the late 2000s or early 2010s, like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga—may make her earlier period appear more imperial in retrospect. (It probably says something about the evolving perception of Swift that the review scores for Taylor’s Version albums are so much higher than the originals’ corresponding scores.)

If we count the Fearless phase and give Madonna credit for the maximum imaginable number, we would have a tie. Unless … well, let me get my auctioneer on. Two Taylor imperial phases, three Taylor imperial phases. Do I hear four?

Sold, to Stereogum’s Tom Breihan—a different Tom who writes about no. 1 songs. “The ‘eras’ are basically all imperial phases,” Breihan contends. For him, the country-inflected early albums “would be anybody else’s career peak, … a gigantic imperial phase.” Then there’s the pure-pop phase, starting with Red or 1989 (when Swift called her pop metamorphosis “official”). “And then,” he continues, “Folklore is this quarantine record that has to even outperform her expectations, I would expect. That thing was so big.”

Put it all together, and Breihan sees the present Taylor imperial phase “as the beginning of a fourth, with Folklore as its own little thing. … This seems like the most imperial of the imperial phases, but there’s been so many.”

Of course, if Swift has arguably crammed more than two imperial phases into a recording career that spans less than 20 years, she can’t have had any very long lulls. Essentially, Swift’s case in this category comes down to whether her late-2000s breakout qualifies as imperial—and, maybe more importantly, whether she ever actually lost enough steam after entering her first imperial phase that she had to build back up to the imperial level again. If you aren’t sold on the latter, then have I ever got the theory for you!

The Longest Imperial Phase

For critic David Cooper Moore, the primary problem with the “most imperial phases” position is that it presupposes that Taylor’s reign was ever interrupted. In the fourth installment of a recent six-part Substack series on Swift, Moore argues, “By November of 2008 it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Taylor Swift.” In Moore’s mind, the poppier trappings that helped Fearless become a crossover hit didn’t usher in a series of ups and relative downs; they were the start of “what looks to be a 20-year unabated imperial phase.”

Moore elaborates via email: “My main claim in the Taylor Swift series is that we’ve been living in Taylor Swift’s 2008 for about 15 years. I think you can debate when it was obvious Taylor was at the top of the pop star heap, but I think it’s hard to argue she was very far from the top after Fearless was released, and it’s indisputable by Red.” Like Moore, both Breihan and Ewing argue (persuasively) that Red was at least as big as the records that preceded it, which makes the idea of a Fearless-only imperial phase that wasn’t repeated until 1989 seem slightly more tenuous. As Breihan puts it, “Any metric that you can look at, she’s been so far beyond everybody for so long. … Taylor Swift’s biggest flop would be almost anybody else’s biggest hit.”

Moore continues: “The other big claim that I make is that her 15 years have been remarkably steady. Most Taylor Swift drama plays out as a sort of kayfabe, which makes it easy to forget that she’s never really had major competition—she’s never been ‘dethroned.’”

In the Time piece, Swift implies that her 1989 imperial phase ended amid the backlash to her spike in popularity, her spat with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, her 2016-17 hiatus, and the less rapturous critical response to her Joe Alwyn–era records, Reputation and Lover. (Lover was better regarded than Reputation but didn’t produce any no. 1 singles—until the unparalleled impact of Swift’s latest peak catapulted the 4-year-old “Cruel Summer” to the top of the charts last October.) “The most interesting question of Taylor’s career, critically, is: What do you make of Reputation?” Ewing says. “Because if you’re saying she’s in a perpetual imperial phase, or if you’re saying she’s had two, Reputation feels like, … ‘OK, I am enormous, I can’t get any bigger at the moment, so I need to take the pressure off myself a bit.’”

This is what Moore is driving at with his kayfabe comparison: Can an imperial phase end if the star in question doesn’t dim that much and is never outshined? Even if the star feels like they’ve lost some luster? As Defector’s Kelsey McKinney noted, even Lansky had his doubts about the comeback narrative, though he held them in until after the interview. Here’s how he expressed his reservations in Time:

Swift has told me a story about redemption, about rising and falling only to rise again—a hero’s journey. I do not say to her, in our conversation, that it did not always look that way from the outside—that, for example, when Reputation’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” reached No. 1 on the charts, or when the album sold 1.3 million albums in the first week, second only to 1989, she did not look like someone whose career had died. She looked like a superstar who was mining her personal experience as successfully as ever.

As post-imperial drop-offs go, that’s not exactly “Domino Dancing.” As Ewing recalls, “There was definitely a slight critical falloff when [Reputation] came out. And then there were also people who were like, ‘No, this is just as good.’” Reputation poses a quandary for imperial-phase scholars, he says, because “it’s very common for stars to release [a] ‘This is my stepping back’ album, [but] it’s less common for it to be, ‘This is my stepping back, but I’m still going to be the most famous pop star in the world.’”

This question is important for our purposes, because if Reputation wasn’t the, um, endgame of the post-1989 phase, then Taylor almost indisputably holds the record for the longest continuous imperial phase. (Provided a cameo in Cats doesn’t disqualify her; that debacle clearly wasn’t Taylor’s fault.) This is all somewhat subjective, but the most prolonged phase to date, Ewing believes, would be about seven years: the Beatles from Beatlemania to breakup, or Prince from, say, 1999 to Batman (also seven years). If we give Michael Jackson Off the Wall to Bad (despite the five-year gap between Thriller and Bad) or stretch Madonna’s imperial phase from Like a Virgin through the lead-up to Erotica, we could push the previous record to eight years.

Taylor Swift Fearless Tour 2009 In New York City Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

If Swift gets credit for Fearless through the present, then she’s almost doubled the lengths of those legendary runs, even as she’s pivoted from country to pop to the “folklorian woods” of the lockdown albums to the more electronic elements of Midnights. “She’s obviously matured as a songwriter and tried different things,” Ewing says. “She shows a different enough facet each time that it never becomes stale, which is one of the risks of a very long imperial phase. She’s very Prince in that [way], … where every new album was very recognizably Prince being Prince, but each of them was also playing with a different stylistic palette.” Whatever twists and turns she takes along the way, personally or sonically, Ewing says, “the narrative always ends at, ‘And she’s done it again. She’s back on top.’” (As if she ever left.)

Even if we start the clock at 1989, Swift’s imperial phase (or is it an imperial era?) is coming up on a decade, which would still take the title—unless Reputation reset the clock. So, was Swift’s sixth album a streak stopper or a streak extender? Call it what you want.

There’s one other way we could go with this, though. You say the most imperial phases, I say the longest imperial phase. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Overthrowing the Imperial Phase

The matter of Taylor Swift’s claim to imperial-phase fame defies easy answers. But maybe, as Chief Danvers would say, we’re just not asking the right questions. Maybe what we should be asking is: Does the concept of an imperial phase still apply to Taylor Swift in 2024? Or, for that matter, to popular music more broadly?

When Ewing codified Tennant’s term in 2010, one hallmark, he wrote, was that “the phase always ends.” If it doesn’t end, it’s no longer a phase—it’s just an empire. And if we can conceive of an indefinite tenure at the top, it’s a sign of a serious phase shift (so to speak). As Swift sang in part of a line from a previously unreleased track on the rerecorded Red: “It’s not just a phase I’m in.”

Maybe, then, we should era-adjust the imperial phase to account for changing economic and cultural conditions, as we do with sports stats (and dynasties) that were compiled in wildly different scoring and competitive environments. Which takes us to the Ewing Theory (no, not that one): The era of the imperial phase is over.

“When I originally wrote about imperial phases,” Ewing says, “it was very much working from an assumption that pop audiences work in the same way they worked when Neil Tennant coined the phrase; i.e., they’re inherently transient. They are deeply interested in something and then move on to something else. … It feels to me what Taylor is doing—and is the best at doing out of a bunch of people who attempt it—is cultivating an audience that is invested in her to the extent that they don’t move on, and she keeps that attention perpetually.”

As it turns out, this is basically the Breihan and/or Moore Theory as well. Both see Swift as being, in Breihan’s words, “ridiculously global-level famous for about 15 years now,” but both also see it as somewhat oxymoronic to describe that sort of sustained dominance as a phase. “I think Taylor Swift has done something different from maintaining an imperial phase or having multiple imperial phases,” Moore says. “I think she’s essentially risen above the (American/Western) pop music landscape that made an imperial phase possible. She’s just putting out Taylor Swift records, and there’s no one next in line.”

A few factors have created the conditions that promote permanent pop stardom. In earlier eras, Ewing notes, most pop fans followed music through the mass media, which had “built-in novelty-seeking incentives.” (The fact that physical albums were one-time purchases that didn’t generate revenue each time they were played also made it more important for record companies to serve up something new.) In the social internet age, consumers can get info on artists straight from the source, which fosters intense attachment to fan favorites.

“Fandom is not a new phenomenon,” Breihan says. “People identifying with a famous person is not a new phenomenon. But when people kind of construct online identities around fandom, that strikes me as being relatively new.” Swift, he adds, has “really engaged with and stoked” those stans.

Which may be another reason to retire Tennant’s phrase. “The imperial phase posits that stars are ‘cashing in’ their broad success for something weirder, more personal, etc.,” Moore says. “By spending this capital, it ultimately comes back to bite you. … It’s not clear to me that Taylor Swift has ever had to ‘spend’ anything of her credibility or reputation to do whatever she wants. And whatever Taylor Swift wants always seems to be exactly what her audience wants.”

Night Two Of Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour - Kansas City, MO Photo by Fernando Leon/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

And, perhaps, what it will always want. Because in modern music, Ewing says, “Once you have a level of fan attention and engagement, it’s now very hard to lose it.” If they let you into the imperial lounge, you belong for life. As a result, Breihan says, “A lot of the people who in previous eras would’ve faded away are still huge,” while “the age of one-hit wonders seems to be mostly over.” It’s like Tony tells Christopher in The Sopranos Season 1, when the younger mobster pleads to be a made man: “The books are closed. They’re not accepting any new members, OK?” (Imperioli phase—is that anything?)

All of that said: If, as the trailer for Alex Garland’s Civil War contends, ‘all empires fall,’ then how might Taylor’s?

On one level, it can’t, barring some Lizzo-like blow to her, er, reputation. If she never released another song, she could sell out stadiums as long as she lived, à la Billy Joel (who, to be fair, did just release a song). “She’s become a franchise,” Ewing says. “Her fandom is something more similar [to] Star Wars or Marvel—stronger, at the moment, because obviously those brands have put out too much substandard product, and they’re now paying the penalty. But as long as she puts out stuff that is good enough, or just re-puts out the old stuff, it’s difficult to imagine people stopping being a Taylor Swift fan.”

Eight years after her latest album, Rihanna remains an A-lister, and Swift herself has hit a new high-water mark for fame almost a year and a half after releasing her last new, original song (though even her newly unearthed leftovers can climb to no. 1). If anything, it’s safer not to release something: At this level of stardom, you can only decline, and the overexposure pitfall is real. Swift’s ubiquity has built up to the point that she inspires passive publicity, whether she wants to or not. Even when she isn’t onstage or in the studio, she makes headlines because of the stories surrounding her, such as theGaylorwars, “main character”–type tweets, or, more dismayingly, a stir surrounding AI-generated graphic deepfakes.

It’s probably easier to not know Swift’s music in the 2020s than it was to not know the tune to every track on Thriller in the ’80s, when musical tastes and listening habits weren’t so siloed. But Swift’s celebrity is almost omnipresent, and some people are pretty tired of Taylor updates. Granted, they may mostly be people who were non-Swifties to start, like Larry David and dudes who can’t stand seeing Swift on their screens for roughly 0.4 percent of a football broadcast. But even Richie Jerimovich, a man who blasts “Love Story” in the car, can reach a point of too much Taylor.

Swift is savvy enough to know when she’s less wanted. As her 2015 tour wound down, she admitted, “I think people might need a break from me.” A rumored announcement of a Reputation remake (which Swift appeared to tease before the real reveal of an all-new album) seemed like it might give her another chance to lie low for a while. “Just as Reputation was the curtain on her original imperial phase, Reputation (Taylor’s Version) might be a very knowing, ‘OK, I’m stepping away from it again,’” Ewing speculated before the Grammys. And then, on Sunday, Swift started the countdown to her next inevitable blockbuster, which will surely extend her stay on center stage for many more months.

But even if Swift never willingly withdraws from the spotlight, the passage of time could pose a threat. You can be a pop icon at virtually any age, based on career accomplishments. But broadly and historically speaking, pop stardom—in terms of active, vital contributions to the zeitgeist and the perception that a performer is still doing their best work—has been the province of the young. Can the 34-year-old Swift keep reaching new listeners and retain her intergenerational hold on the culture in the decades to come? (Pet Shop Boys are still releasing records, but “Domino Dancing” ended their imperial phase when Tennant was as old as Taylor is now.) What if Kelce is her soulmate, they settle down, and she no longer writes songs or fuels tabloid stories about losing or looking for love? Can she conquer music’s aging curve like she’s conquered its charts?

“I don’t think it’s impossible at all, because I don’t think anything that she’s doing with her music requires a youth’s perspective,” Ewing says. “And I think she’s primed her audience, partly with the Eras Tour, to say, ‘This is my journey from girlhood to young womanhood to maturity.’ And the implication in that is, ‘And the journey is going to keep on going.’”

There’s also every indication that listeners will want to go with her. Instead of aging out of the audience, Ewing says, “People are now pop music fans for life. And that then means, because we’re an aging population generally, that the slice of attention given to music that is mainly or exclusively listened to by young people just shrinks and shrinks and shrinks.” In that respect, pop stars could age like actors and politicians, as the few who broke through before the monoculture cratered serve as headliners for longer and longer (for better or worse). Maybe that’s already happening: The Beatles broke up before they were 30 (though their success persisted solo) and Elvis had to make a comeback at 33, but Drake and Beyoncé are about as big as ever at 37 and 42, respectively.

Swift will soon run out of old albums to rerecord, and her current tour wraps at the end of the year, so she needs a new era to enter. “She’s probably got the next five moves plotted out already,” Breihan told me, and now we know one of them: the 16-track Tortured Poets Department. (Plus a bonus track called “The Manuscript,” to highlight the literary theme and sell lots of vinyl.) And after that? Maybe she’ll make movies or really write a book or start a label or be a brand and a business tycoon—the millennial Dolly Parton. Maybe she’ll just keep cranking out hits. “All I wanna do is keep doing this,” she proclaimed on Sunday, lining up her next award while grasping the last one.

At some point, Ewing says, “There will undoubtedly be a step down. … What I can see is, in 10 years or so, the people who like Taylor Swift being not as big a force in media and in terms of what gets covered, … and she moves into a phase where she is just a huge star and everyone knows who she is, but the extent to which she owns the culture has receded a bit, in the way that it did for Madonna.”

For a worst-case scenario, that doesn’t sound so bad. It beats the first verse of “Castles Crumbling,” a previously unreleased track on Speak Now (Taylor’s Version):

Once I had an empire in a golden age
I was held up so high, I used to be great
They used to cheer when they saw my face
Now, I fear I have fallen from grace

That’s the sentiment of someone who’s mourning the end of an imperial phase. Which, for the foreseeable future, doesn’t seem like something Swift has to fear.

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