On her otherwise faithful new cover of Bobby Brown's ''My Prerogative,'' Britney Spears adds a whispered line of her own: ''You can't tell me what to do.'' And as tabloid readers are well aware, the 22-year-old superstar -- who returns to the marketplace this week with ''My Prerogative'' and a perfume called Curious -- has spent the last nine months doing exactly what she wanted. She started the year by marrying some guy in Vegas and having it annulled two days later. She then got engaged to another guy: scruff-bearded, undershirt-wearing backup dancer Kevin Federline, whose ex-girlfriend was eight months pregnant, and who's been Britney's constant companion in an endless series of tawdry and unflattering paparazzi photos.
Ever since Spears canceled her lavish, poorly reviewed Onyx Hotel Tour in June, citing a knee injury, her career has been on hold. She declined to appear at the recent MTV Video Music Awards and didn't show for a performance by kids at her own charity camp in Massachusetts (her reps said the bum knee kept her from flying). But as Britney Spears Inc. gears up again -- ''My Prerogative'' heralds a Nov. 9 Greatest Hits album -- will the public's overfamiliarity with her messy personal life keep them from buying her products? ''Her image has crumpled a bit. She's definitely hit a burnout period,'' says Paul ''Cubby'' Bryant, music director for New York pop station Z100. Adds Ruben Garay, webmaster of the fansite worldofbritney.com, ''Her fans think she doesn't care anymore.''
But even if Britney doesn't care, her mom sure does. ''I don't know why the media has picked Britney to be the current celebrity they most love to hate, but they have,'' Lynne Spears wrote in her online column last week, accusing the press of conspiring to depict Spears as ''trashy.'' Among the offending images: Britney leering as she grabs Kevin's crotch; stepping out of a gas-station ladies room -- barefoot (''unhygienisch,'' a German newspaper shrieked); scarfing down cheese puffs; and wearing T-shirts that read ''MILF in training'' and ''I'm a virgin (but this is an old T-shirt).'' And then there was her gum-chomping punditry in Fahrenheit 9/11 (''I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that'').
Though they haven't yet spawned a Bennifer-style nickname (Bevin? Kritney?), the Kev-and-Brit show has succeeded Jen and Ben as the paparazzi's No. 1 target. Even a nonexclusive Britney pic can yield $3,000, while an exclusive can be worth tens of thousands, says Gary Morgan, co-owner of photo agency Splash News. As a result, photographers' focus on Spears is relentless. Writes Mama Spears, ''I guess it's easy to find these 'flawed' human moments when there's cars of paparazzi documenting your every move.''
With that much attention, how can Spears move beyond the tabs? Public relations veteran Dan Klores, whose firm repped Spears for nine months last year, doubts it's even possible: ''She needs to be career-conscious, not just conscious of the next day. But she doesn't follow advice. And there's no mature guidance there -- she's a paycheck to a lot of people.'' (''She asks for advice. We work as a group,'' counters one of Spears' publicists, Leslie Sloane Zelnik.) Another entertainment publicist, who requested anonymity, says Spears could start over -- if she restrains her behavior. ''She needs to go away for six months and get it together,'' he says. ''She can make a comeback, but she's got to disappear.''
Despite her tabloid troubles, Spears still has commercial clout -- at least in the music world (her fledgling acting career stalled after 2002's unexceptional Crossroads.). ''She's a pop icon,'' says Albie Dee, music director for Washington, D.C., pop station WIHT. ''The girl can pass wind on a record and it'd probably be a hit.'' And while her album sales have steadily declined, ''most people would love to have 2.8 million units of disappointment,'' says Virgin Megastores exec Kevin Milligan, who predicts strong sales for her best-of set. And after that? Klores expects Spears' handlers to milk her personal life for publicity: ''The same way they're playing the [upcoming] wedding, they'll play the [inevitable] pregnancy, the baby.'' Responds Sloane Zelnik: ''I don't see how we're milking it. We're doing the opposite -- we're telling people to mind their own business.''
Z100's Bryant, who considers Spears a friend, wouldn't be surprised if she did disappear after promoting the hits package. ''She's majorly overexposed, and I think she'll definitely take some time off. She hasn't led a normal life since she was 16, and I think she's trying to break away from that.'' And in the end, maybe that's her prerogative.
(Additional reporting by Whitney Pastorek)