Day Seventy: "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" from UHF: Original Soundtrack and Other Stuff
I’ve written extensively here about the central role formula plays in Al’s work, both in terms of the themes and motifs he revisits in song after song (food, TV, advertising, advertising food on television), and in how his albums are structured. “Formulaic” is seldom used in a positive way except in Al’s case, where it has helped him stay relevant and popular and at the very apex of his field for three and a half decades.
But I also see Al’s use of formulas in a positive light because the seemingly rigid structures of Al’s albums allow for an awful lot of playfulness. experimentation and gleeful absurdism. This is particularly true of the final track of Al’s classic 1980s albums, which he has reserved for such warped oddities as “Mr. Frump In the Iron Lung”, “Nature Trail to Hell”, “Christmas At Ground Zero” and “Good Old Days.”
“The Biggest Ball of Twine of Minnesota”, which ends out UHF on a triumphant note, is the ultimate oddball album 1980s album-closer, a nearly seven-minute long story-song in the vein of singer-songwriter types like Harry Chapin that packs in so much wonderful, banal, wonderfully banal detail that it feels almost like a family road comedy movie on wax or a short story in song form rather than a mere ditty.
The song resembles the Vacation movies, which were famously inspired by a short story John Hughes wrote for The National Lampoon in tone and subject matter. I was going to write that “The Biggest Ball of Twine Of Minnesota” is like Vacation only less classist but the only poor person we meet in the song—a foul-smelling bum with a sign reading “Twine Ball or Bust” named Bernie—repays the narrator and his family’s kindness in giving him a lift by stealing his Insta-matic camera so it would probably be a stretch to posit this as a Let Us Now Praise Famous Men-style illustration of the fundamental dignity of the American poor..
“The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” embodies Al’s genius for treating nonsense as a matter of international, even international importance. In this case the nonsense is the titular Midwestern home of an exceptionally large assemblage of yarn, which the wanderlust-addled narrator and his children all seize upon as a sacred Mecca they must visit.
The soundtrack-closer doubles as one of the most comprehensive and satisfying character studies in Al’s oeuvre. We learn so, so much about the travel enthusiast happily singing the song, from his employer (Big Roy’s Heating and Plumbing) to the length of his vacation (two weeks) to his taste in everything from road food (he has a real thing for pickled wieners) to country music (a Slim Whitman tape provides the soundtrack for at least part of the journey). We learn far more than we need to know about the singer. Over the course of the song the sheer accumulation of seemingly pointless and unnecessary details gives it an offbeat, shambling rhythm all its own. But these details also help flesh out the portrait of the corny dad behind the steering wheel, and the kinds of unimportant things he finds important.
Sure enough, we learn that it was exactly “7:37 Wednesday evening” when the narrator’s life was changed when he first encountered the twine ball, something he recounts with the kind of awe generally reserved for encounters with the Lord, gushing effusively, “Out on the distance, on the horizon, it appeared to me like a vision before my unbelieving eye/I parked the car and walked with awe-filled reverence towards that glorious majestic sphere/I was just so overwhelmed by its sheer immensity.”
It’s easy to see why “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” has attracted an intense and loyal cult following. There’s just so much to the song. It’s not just a clever little ditty, it’s an entire richly observed universe onto itself, an affectionate look at an America that does not exist anymore, but lives on in the form of the faded bumper stickers and decals that line the outside of the car that transports the song’s subjects from one surreally pointless tourist trap to another.
What makes “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” such an enduring piece of cornball Americana in addition to being a sly send-up of cornball Americana, is the enormous affection it has for the campy details of Middle-American life and for Middle American life itself. Sure, the pickled wieners that are constantly mentioned sound as stomach-churning as the pork-and-spam-and-winds-and-ghosts that make up Spam but they also sounds oddly irresistible.
“The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” is a gleeful, goofy lampoon of tourists, and the eternal human urge to want to see nonsense that doesn’t really need to seen (biggest culprit? That big hunk of nothing known and overrated as the so-called “Grand” Canyon). But it’s also a celebration of tourists and the eternal human urge to want to see nonsense that doesn’t really need to seen as well. In true "Weird Al" Yankovic form, It’s driven by love and affection rather than nastiness or condescension.
Listening to “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” makes you feel like you’re there in the car with this archetypal American family in all of their All-American weirdness and normality. You can damn near smell the pickled wieners and taste the beer. You want to be one of the brats along for the ride even if, in one of the song’s most darkly winning details, you wouldn’t actually be able to actually see all that glorious scenery on account of the windows being covered up by decals.
“The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” isn’t just easily my favorite song on what is so far my least favorite “Weird Al” Yankovic album: it’s one of my all-time favorite “Weird Al” Yankovic songs, period. If the first song on every Al album is for the radio and the mainstream and people who know Al primarily as the “Eat It” guy, then the final track is generally a gift to his fans that, on classics like this, find him at his biggest, most ambitious, and just plain weirdest. No wonder they tend to be remembered long after the more commercial and less personal singles have been forgotten.
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