FOR years, parents have routinely shouted ``Turn the music down!'' over the blast of teen-agers' records. Recently a group of parents, many of whom grew up to the rock beat themselves, decided to turn the music up and listen carefully.
What they heard in the lyrics, saw on album covers, and watched on rock videos alarmed them. They joined forces and in only a few months have managed to shake, rattle, and roll the rock-music industry. Their goal is a rating system for records and videos similar to the G, PG, R, or X now applied to movies.
This group, which includes wives of some of the most powerful men in Washington, is getting action. They charge some popular songs, which endorse violence, bestiality, and even incest, are blatant pornography.
``A line of decency has been crossed,'' says Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, and a co-founder last May of the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC).
Critics concede that lyrics about sex and drugs are not new; such themes were found in the songs of Cole Porter, Billie Holiday, and the Beatles.
The difference today, say PMRC members, is in degree and in the target audience. Madonna, who is seductively posed on the cover of her album ``Like a Virgin,'' wearing a belt buckle carrying the words ``Boy Toy,'' attracts mostly preteen fans.
The double-entendres of the 1960s and '70s have given way to graphic descriptions of sex and violence. Brutality to women and satanic worship are common themes.
PMRC members concede that such music is only a small part of the rock scene. Mary Elizabeth (Tipper) Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee and a founder of PMRC observes, ``I love rock music; I still am a consumer of it.'' But she says that some current rock depicts ``sadomasochism, killing, raping, as an apparently normal way to relate to women.''
PMRC is taking its message to the public. Members are appearing on television talk shows and presenting copies of explicit lyrics to top music executives.
``The fact that we are in Washington and are married to important men has certainly helped our cause,'' says Mrs. Baker. But the founders did not expect the tidal wave of public interest, including more than 10,000 letters from parents and teen-agers and nonstop phone calls.
``I absolutely had no idea this was an issue waiting to be born,'' says Pam Howar, the group's president and wife of a top Washington real estate developer.
The music industry is responding with alacrity and some grumbling.
So far 19 recording companies have agreed to put the warning ``parental guidance: explicit lyrics'' on selected records. Buyers will see them in stores ``in a couple of months,'' says a spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America.
The National Association of Broadcasters has alerted its member rock stations. By some accounts, program managers are beginning to screen music more carefully. PMRC has been invited to present its case at the NAB convention in Dallas Sept. 12.
PMRC has also sparked a congressional hearing for Sept. 18 before a Senate Commerce subcommittee. Although the subcommittee says the hearing is for ``information only,'' music industry spokesmen note that husbands of PMRC members are members of the panel.
Gary Stevens, president of Doubleday Broadcasting and overseer of rock stations in six cities, has become one of the few outspoken critics of PMRC. He opposes its campaign as a first step toward censorship, which could prevent some records and videos from being broadcast. ``Who knows where it stops?'' he says. ``Once the labels are on, they're going to be all over us.''
Mrs. Howar, of the Parents Music Resource Workshop, confirms those fears. ``I think they're going to find they have to respond to community pressure,'' she says.
While PMRC has stirred activity, its founders are far from satisfied. The ``parental guidance'' label falls short of their goal of formation of a panel, composed of music industry and community members, to set uniform criteria for warning labels. PMRC also wants the label to read ``R,'' for restricted.
``It's a truth-in-packaging type issue,'' says Mrs Gore. If each record company sets different standards for labels, it will ``confuse the consumer,'' she says.
Gore discovered the need for warnings when her 12-year-old daughter asked to buy ``Purple Rain,'' a hit album by superstar Prince. ``All I knew was that Prince was a new figure on the scene,'' she says, adding that she had liked one of his songs on the radio.
Once her daughter brought ``Purple Rain'' home, Gore heard a song that began, ``I knew girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,'' followed by a graphic sexual description. The album was immediately remanded to an upper shelf.
PMRC makes no apologies for shocking other parents, public officials, and music executives who seldom listen to rock music. On its list of unacceptable lyrics are words from the group Motley Crue's top-selling ``Shout at the Devil'' album: ``. . .now I'm killing you. . . Watch your face turning blue.''
They also point to a Prince album entitled ``Dirty Mind'' that praises incest as ``everything it's said to be.''
The trickle of explicit language in rock has become a river, says the Rev. Jeff Ling, a minister, rock music expert, and consultant to PMRC.
``Kids have a very difficult problem with self image as it is,'' he says, adding that problems increase when they see ``mankind at its most base.''
``All of society is saturated'' with such messages, he concedes. But like his fellow activists, he says that ``you can only tackle one issue at a time.'' He says they are choosing rock music because it is aimed at preteens and teens.
The group calculates that the average teen-ager listens to such music five hours a day, or 10,000 hours during Grades 7 through 12.
Bill Steding, general manager of Central Broadcasting in Dallas, says he's expecting a ``lot more receptivity'' from radio programmers at the broadcasters' convention next month. He says he has noticed stations already becoming more ``conservative.''
``Even radio stations didn't listen very well to the lyrics'' in the past, he says. ``Now they've started to pay attention.''
His rock station, KAFM in Dallas, has long had strict rules about sex, violence, and drugs in music. ``We edit or do not play certain songs,'' Mr. Steding says. At the same time, the station is one of the top five in the city.
``We just took a position . . . that we wanted to have a positive impact on teens,'' he says.
He adds that a recent survey found that policy helped the station's popularity. The survey indicated that listeners who most objected to explicit or violent music were 15- to 18-year-olds. -- 30 --