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Taking a census of Grammy nominees, winners

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Who gets nominated for a Grammy? Musicians, sure. But who exactly, on paper, are they?

Take Frank Sinatra. Yes, he was a singer of incredible power, and garnered deserved nods for the beauty of his tone and his mellifluous phrasing. But artistry aside, on a basic level, pop singer Francis Sinatra was a native of Hoboken, N.J., a white male who earned his first nominations in the Grammys' first year, 1959.

Or multifaceted jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, a surprise nominee for best new artist this year. Spalding is one of many women to have been nominated in the category over the years — 99 others, to be exact, including Mariah Carey, Macy Gray and Miriam Makeba. But to break things down further, Spalding is only the second Oregonian artist (remember Nu Shooz?), and one of only a handful from the Pacific Northwest to ever be nominated in one of the three major categories.

The 53rd Grammy Awards take place on Sunday, and with the annual honors comes the knowledge that more than a half-century's worth of nominees and winners have preceded this year's roster. Combined, this select group of artists contains a vast trove of demographic information about America's popular music tastes.

Yes, the Grammys celebrate the artists and music that have transformed culture through song, the joy of which is impossible to quantify. But at its essence, each nomination also provides data that, compiled, offer information worthy of parsing. Is a nominee male or female? Black, white, Latino or … Samoan? Is he or she from Roswell, N.M., (John Denver), New York City (Barbra Streisand) or McComb, Miss. (Britney Spears)? How open to international voices are our musical pleasures? America has long prided itself on its cultural openness. Do the numbers bear this out?

To answer these questions and more, The Times compiled information on all the nominees in the three major performance categories of the Grammy awards — album of the year, record of the year and best new artist — going back to 1959. (Because the fourth category, song of the year, is a songwriters award, we opted not to include those data.)

Included was information on the nominee's gender, ethnicity, age when receiving each honor, and city, state and country of birth (or, in the case of bands, home city). We then crunched the numbers to see what they would reveal. The result is an informal census of the Grammys, a snapshot of the tastes of the American public (or, specifically, members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, an organization comprised of musicians, engineers, producers and industry professionals — so the results reflect the biases of this subset).

For example, the statistic that provincialists on the East and West coasts might find useful during bar wagering: New York versus California. Predictably, states containing the country's major music business hubs and greatest populations have fielded the most nominations, with the major cities of the two states getting the lion's share (7% for Los Angeles versus 12% for New York and its boroughs). But New York leads all states with 19% of the total, followed by California, with 16%.

To make matters worse for West Coast boosters: The third most musically fertile state is New Jersey, with 9% of all nominations. It doesn't hurt that Grammy perennials Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston were all born there. Tennessee, home to country music mecca Nashville, didn't fare too well: a mere 3% of the nominations were given to artists born there — and only 8% of all country nominations (compared with Texas' genre-leading 21%).

But, then, of the 795 nominations in the three categories, 36% of solo artists and bands earned them on the back of the electric guitar in rock 'n' roll and its many genre offshoots, compared with 19% who were pop artists, 17% who worked in rhythm & blues and its various incarnations, and 7% who made country music. The Canadian rock band Arcade Fire, nominated for best album for "The Suburbs," should rightly be proud of its nod; in addition to making music in the dominant genre (though rock's hold on pop culture has demonstrably slid in the past two decades), it is part of an elite group: only 3% of its Grammy peers are from Canada. (That small number dwarfs the nods of our neighbors to the south: only two nominations — 0.02% — in total have been given to a single Mexican-born musician, Carlos Santana.)

Great Britain dominates the international field, tally-wise. The U.S. and U.K. have swapped influences for more than two centuries, resulting in 10% of all nominees in the three performance categories. What's more surprising is the grip that it and its European peers have on the international nominees: a mere 3% are from outside of North America and Europe. The only Asian nominee in the top three categories was the Samoan singer Mavis Rivers, for best new artist in 1959. She lost to New York City-born white male Bobby Darin.

Did we say white males? Three hundred and eighty of the 795 nominations stretching back to 1959 — 48% — fit into this dominant category; 21% are white females, which is 2 percentage points more than the combined total of all black nominees. Musicians of Latino origins? Three percent.

And where does this year's roster of nominees fit in the grand scheme of things? Among the five nominees in the prestigious album of the year category are Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Marshall Mathers (a.k.a. Eminem) and Lady Antebellum. Let's see: A rock band from Canada, two pop divas from either coast, a white rapper born in St. Joseph, Miss., and a Nashville country band: That sounds about average.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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