NEW YORK - "People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth," Britney Spears insists breathily at the beginning of her greatest-hits collection, sounding like a pop-star version of Dr. Phil.
"But the question is," she continues, "can you handle mine?"
Tough question, especially coming from someone who's notorious for lip-synching her way through performances, and who utters those words at the start of a song that isn't even one of her own greatest hits, but a cover of somebody else's: Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." We wouldn't know her truth if it were a boa constrictor squeezing us around the neck at the MTV Video Music Awards.
The idea of Britney releasing a greatest-hits disc after only five years in the cultural consciousness seems premature. The Rolling Stones should put out a best-of collection. Barry Manilow should. But Britney?
To beef up "Britney Spears Greatest Hits: My Prerogative" (Jive Records), two of the 17 songs are previously unreleased tracks: "I've Just Begun (Having My Fun)," which sounds like No Doubt's "Hella Good," and "Do Somethin'." Both provide Britney with further opportunities to proclaim her need to have fun and be herself, which have been running themes throughout her last two albums. Then there's her utterly unnecessary version of "My Prerogative," which has an oh-so trendy Bollywood tinge.
That leaves 14 actual hits of her own, at least on the main disc (a second disc features remixes). They're not in chronological order, but they provide an interesting study (for those of us who are into these kinds of things) into Britney's evolution - or more accurately, devolution - as an "artist."
Her first song was actually her best: "... Baby One More Time" from 1999, which Rolling Stone magazine's Jenny Eliscu dismisses as "bubblegum" in the disc's otherwise gushy liner notes.
It's more melodic than most songs that followed, and if you listen closely, you can actually hear her singing - not just growling or panting or giggling on cue, as have become her trademarks of late. Maybe part of the allure back then was her novelty. She wasn't ubiquitous yet, she wasn't trying so hard to shock with her every hip thrust and wardrobe choice (or lack thereof).
Other earlier offerings truly were insipid. The overly electronic "Stronger" is so lamely feel-good, it could have been the theme song to a "Karate Kid" sequel. Same with "(You Drive Me) Crazy."
But the Neptunes-produced "I'm a Slave 4 U," off her third album, "Britney," is a damn sexy song - yeah, I'll admit it - with its thumping beats and seductive "get-it get-it, get-it get-it" chorus.
The insanely catchy "Toxic," from her most recent disc, "In the Zone," actually is one of her greatest hits. The string-heavy, stop-and-start chorus alone makes you want to forgive the "Alias" wannabe video that accompanies the song.
But later on comes "Outrageous," produced by R. Kelly, in which Britney moans in a vapid monotone about her sex drive and her shopping spree, about running around in a "trench coat and my underwear." And although she's clearly having fun with her own image - the way her idol, Madonna, used to do - it sounds like a little girl playing dress-up.
Speaking of Madonna, "Me Against the Music," their mutual admiration society ditty - er, duet - makes both women sound like they're trying too hard to be hip.
The plaintive "Everytime" is actually a pretty tune, though - and as Britney ballads go, it's far preferable to "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," which appears toward the end of the disc. But again, image trumps substance: It's hard to listen to "Everytime" without thinking of the video, in which Britney appears to have slit her wrists in the bathtub after a tempestuous fight with her boyfriend (Stephen Dorff, dressed up like Justin Timberlake, the supposed subject of the song). Don't worry, parents - it's just a red Kabbalah string.
For true fans and collectors, though, the greatest hits collection comes with a second disc, featuring dance mixes of several songs from "In the Zone"- "Toxic," "Everytime," "Breathe on Me" and "Outrageous" - followed by the "Chris Cox Megamix," which is exactly what the title would suggest. Britney's biggest hits, crammed into five tight minutes and tied together with layered dance beats, coming soon to a cardio kickboxing class near you.