Balašević was born to a Serb father, Jovan Balašević, and to Veronika Dolenec, half Hungarian, half Croatian from a village near Koprivnica, Croatia. He has a sister, Jasna. His grandfather's surname was Balašev, but in 1941 (being a religious Orthodox Christian) the grandfather changed it to Balašević in order to avoid magyarization.
The younger Balašević grew up in Jovana Cvijića street in Novi Sad, in the same house where he currently lives with his three children and his wife, who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He started writing poetry in primary school. He left high school in the third year (because, in his words, he hated subjects like mathematics, physics and chemistry) but managed to get a high school diploma as part-time student and passed the preliminary exam for the university study of geography. He never graduated from the university, but instead joined the band Žetva ("Harvest") in 1977.
In 1978 he left Žetva and together with Verica Todorović formed band Rani Mraz ("Early Frost"). The band had its début at Opatija '78, a music festival with the song "Moja prva ljubav" ("My First Love"). The same year former Suncokret members Biljana Krstić and Bora Đorđević joined the band, and together they recorded "Računajte na nas" ("Count on Us") (written by Balašević), a song celebrating the young generation's adoption of the communist revolution. The song became popular with both the communist authorities and the people, making it a kind of an anthem for generations to come.
After just few months of cooperation, Verica Todorović and Bora Đorđević left the band (Đorđević forming his famous hard rock band Riblja Čorba), so Biljana Krstić and Balašević recorded Rani Mraz's first album Mojoj mami umesto maturske slike u izlogu ("To my Mother instead of Prom Photo in the Shop-Window") on their own.
At the Split '79. music festival Balašević won the first prize with the single "Panonski mornar" ("Pannonian Sailor"). A few months later he sold out Belgrade's Dom Sindikata Hall eight times in a row and a new star was born. In 1980 he served in the Yugoslav army in Zagreb and Požarevac where he had a role in the TV show Vojnici, but also found time to write song "Zbog tebe" for Zdravko Čolić and lyrics for several songs recorded on Srebrna Krila album Sreo sam ljubav iz prve pjesme.
By the end of 1980 Rani Mraz released their second and final album with a symbolic title Odlazi cirkus ("The Circus Is Leaving") and the band dissolved shortly afterwards. The album reaffirmed Balašević's status and delivered some unforgettable songs, one of them being "Priča o Vasi Ladačkom" ("Story of Vasa Ladački") which went on to become one of Balašević's signature songs.
He started his solo career in 1982 with the album Pub ("Jack") which was excellently received. Shortly after he had a role in TV series Pop Ćira i pop Spira. In the following 1982 / 1983 tour he sold out Belgrade's Sava Center hall for the first time. His Sava Center concerts would become his trademark in years to follow. The next two albums Celovečernji The Kid ("Wholeevening The Kid"), released in 1983 and 003, released in 1985 followed the same path of success and Balašević established himself as respectable singer-songwriter.
The next album, Bezdan ("Abyss"), released in 1986, was a milestone in his career. The record was produced by Đorđe Petrović and arrangement was done by Aleksandar Dujin. Those two would be the key associates of Balašević for the next 20 years and substantially influence his work. They became the backbone of Balašević supporting band The Unfuckables (although this is just a nickname, as he performs under his own name and the support band is never billed) and part of his stage appearance.
The next album was his first live album U tvojim molitvama - Balade ("In Your Prayers - Ballads"). The album was recorded on his concerts in Zetra hall in Sarajevo, Ledena dvorana and Šalata in Zagreb, Sava Centar in Belgrade and Studio M in Novi Sad in 1986 and 1987. Apart from his well-known previous songs, the album featured few previously unrecorded track "Samo da rata ne bude" ("Just Let There be no War"). The song features a large children's choir which, together with lyrics warning about the war (which indeed will start three years later), delivers a hymn of pacifists throughout then still existing SFR Yugoslavia.
The same sensation of imminent disaster predominates his next album Panta Rei released in 1988. The song "Requiem" was dedicated to late Josip Broz Tito and those who identified themselves with his ideas, while satire "Soliter" caricatures Yugoslavia as a high-rise in which only façade still holds while foundations slide. The atmosphere of the album is dark and bitter as Balašević realises the hard times are coming.
Famous guitarist Elvis Stanić takes part in recording of album Tri posleratna druga ("Three Afterwar Friends") in 1989. Josip Kiki Kovač joined The Unfuckables on album Marim ja... ("I Don't Care...") released in 1991.
After a long pause, he issued Naposletku ("After all") in 1996. The change in sentiment was obvious and would be more or less prevalent on all of his albums up to date (as of 2005). Naposletku was mostly folk rock-oriented. Nearly all instruments on this album are acoustic, the violin becomes dominant and woodwind instruments are heavily used.
During the 1990s Balašević engaged in broad criticism of the current political situation in Serbia, Slobodan Milošević and Socialist Party of Serbia. Devedesete ("Nineties"), released in 2000, was his most politically involved album. Balašević openly made fun of Milošević with the song "Legenda o Gedi Gluperdi" ("Legend of Geda the Stupid"), criticized police officers who defended the corrupt system by confronting demonstrating youth in "Plava balada" ("The Blue Ballad"), looked back to the 1990s with disgust in the title song "Devedesete" (the first line of the refrain being "Ma, jebite se devedesete", trans. "Fuck you, nineties"), supplyed young demonstrators with an anthem "Živeti slobodno" ("To Live Freely"), reaching out to his lost friends in Croatia and Bosnia with "Stih na asfaltu" ("A Verse on the Asphalt") and "Sevdalinka", but still preserving patriotism with "Dok gori nebo nad Novim Sadom" ("While the Sky over Novi Sad is Burning"), a song about the 1999 NATO bombing of Novi Sad. This album clearly marked the atmosphere in Serbia in the year when Slobodan Milošević lost power.
After this open engagement in politics, he returned to romance. The album Dnevnik starog momka ("Diary of the old bachelor") released in 2001 comprises 12 songs, each having a female name as its title, and each addressing a different girl. Balašević repeatedly stated that the girls and songs are pure fiction, and the song titles form the acrostic "Olja je najbolja" ("Olja is the Best"), Olja being the nickname of his wife Olivera Balašević.
His latest album Rani mraz released in 2004 follows the folk rock style developed on Naposletku.
Songs that have more than one of these characteristics are quite rare, so his songs form three quite disjoint sets.
Songs of the first group are marked by nostalgia and are saturated in gentle moods. He was influenced by poets such as his native Mika Antić and songwriter Arsen Dedić, the indebtedness to the latter being credited openly and acknowledged by Balašević himself ("I am an Arsen-addict"). These are the songs for which he is most famous, and which take up the best part of his concert repertoire.
His politically engaged songs deliver the message of pacifism and tolerance, so he is often "accused" of yugonostalgia. Balašević was against the Yugoslav wars and was often accused of being pro-Croatian and pro-Bosnian, causing even threats from the government; this caused him to stop writing and performing almost completely in the 1990s.
Apart from his very large opus and loyal fans, he has a custom of making long pauses between songs and commenting on current events. Therefore his concerts are more of a cabaret than pop concerts in the common sense of the word.
His first concert in Zagreb after the war (in Ledena dvorana hall, capacity 10,000 people) on December 13, 2002, was sold out three months in advance, so another one had to be scheduled for the next day. That one was also sold out, an achievement rarely seen in Zagreb.
His traditional New Year's concerts in "Sava Center" hall in Belgrade (capacity 3,672 seats) are traditionally sold out too. He sold out "Sava Center" for the first time in the 1982/1983 season, started his regular New Year's concerts in 1986 and in the 1990s and 2000s he was performing up to 11 evenings in a row (4 concerts in a row in 1993/1994 , 10 in 1996/1997 , 9 in 1997/1998 , 7 in 1998/1999 , 11 in 2001/2002) The fact that he sings in Serbian did not prevent him to perform all over the globe: even in Sydney
During the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, Balašević fans formed two Internet fan clubs named Oaza and (ne)normalni balaševićevci The former club went so far to form a tribute band called (Ne)normalni bend which at first played at meetings of club members, but as of 2006 tours Serbia and sometimes other countries playing Balašević's songs.
He has a particularly large group of fans in parts of former Yugoslavia other than Serbia, so he frequently tours Slovenia and Croatia. Although there is a number of his older fans who were "infected" during 1980s, most of his fans are "younger than some of his songs" as he likes to say and were recruited during the war. During war years he was not welcome in Croatia because of his Serbian descent and residence, but his concerts in the Slovenian cities of Ljubljana and Maribor were attended by large groups of (mostly younger) Croatians, who often outnumbered Slovenians. His war-time concerts (like the one on April 2, 2000, in Budapest were attended by both Croats and Serbs from all parts of each of the two countries ).
At that time, a small group of people from Split (calling themselves Optimists) became famous for traveling large distances to attend his concerts as he couldn't perform in their town. They became a symbol for the devotion of Balašević's fans. Balašević finally performed in Split on December 16, 2004.
Since one of his first songs "Računajte na nas", Balašević has been politically involved. Together with another early single "Tri put sam video Tita" ("I Saw Tito Three Times"), these songs summed up his early political position: pan-southslavic, patriotism and Titoism, although he sometimes confronted with hard line conservatives for playing rock music which was perceived as western influence.
During the second half of the 1980s, new feelings started to emerge from his songs. Bitterness and depression (culminating in the songs "1987" and "Samo da rata ne bude" released in 1987 and with the album Panta Rei released in 1989) were messengers of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia which ensued in the first half of the 1990s. His songs and stage speeches began showing disillusionment and sadness over the fact that bloodshed was possible in the Yugoslavia he once admired. He summed up that overall feeling in a sentence of his book Tri posleratna druga: "While we were growing up, the biggest insult for us was when dark emigrant forces called our homeland an unnatural, artificial creation. When we grew up, the biggest insult for us was when we realised that was true." He openly criticized the negative and destructive aspects produced by the changes in the political and economic systems, and the Serbian, Croatian and Slovene nationalism.
In the ensuing war years, Balašević had some serious problems with the regime of Slobodan Milošević because he refused to join the army and openly stated his opposition to the regime. At his concerts he often criticized and made fun of Milošević and other Serbian politicians. The pressure on him escalated after 1999 NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, when his family fled to Maribor, Slovenia, but he remained in their family house in Novi Sad so that he could not be accused of fleeing the city in the times of trouble.
In 2000, he took part in demonstrations during and following the downfall of Slobodan Milošević.
In 1996, he became the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for his antiwar statements during the Yugoslav wars and held the first postwar concert in Sarajevo as the first Serbian artist visiting war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina.