Selena Gomez performs at the Patriot Center. (Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post)

Thursday’s concert at the Patriot Center was Selena Gomez’s first show back in the United States after touring Europe since late August. Her energetic, calculatedly modest performance proved she’s fully aware of what kind of America she’s returned to: one that’s spent the past six weeks or so collectively fretting about what’s become of Miley Cyrus.

Gomez’s solo debut, “Stars Dance,” premiered atop the Billboard charts when it came out in July, but many critics saw it as little more than a decent imitation of the likes of Rihanna, Ke$ha and Britney Spears. The Disney-Channel-icon-turned-pop-starlet’s identity crisis remains unresolved. Thursday night’s opening numbers made stylish use of her dance skills, as well as those of her backup dancers, but played out like a let’s-play-dress-up montage in which Gomez tried on and discarded the aesthetics of other aughts-era pop princesses, with the occasional aggressive hair flip à la Beyoncé and petulant, Britney-inspired whimper-interludes. “B.E.A.T.,” with its nifty call-and-response dance breaks, offered a refreshing burst of inspiration. But then Gomez turned back into the industry’s most charming baby-faced fraudster with a rendition of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” plus cleaned-up versions of Iggy Azalea’s rap hybrid “Work” and Rihanna’s hyper-erotic “Birthday Cake.”

It’s worth noting that Gomez declined to adopt the overt sensuality or unapologetic bawdiness some of her influences are known for. And in doing so, she’s nimbly sidestepped the all-too-familiar, all-too-newsy narrative of the former child star gone wild.

“You guys trust me, the parents trust me,” Gomez said to the arena full of shrieking little girls (and many of their moms and dads). “You make me better every single day, and I want to make you guys better, too.” She later added, “I know it’s very, very hard to be a good example these days.”

Gomez had a keen awareness that she was performing for a legion of adoring preteen girls, their faces smudged with their first-ever mascara and lipstick borrowed from their moms. Her costumes — a gold mini-dress here, shorts with a black bandeau and a sheer, oversize shirt there — never revealed anything more controversial than a rib cage. Her interactions with her male backup dancers were brief and G-rated, and even her rowdier let’s-party tracks, like “Birthday,” featured video clips of Gomez and friends partying alcohol-free.

Inevitably, some dissonance arose between Gomez the 21-year-old and Gomez the benevolent queen of a fan base whose parents buy them school supplies with her face on them. More grown-up selections like “Undercover” were coupled with chaste choreography — the dancers marched around like soldiers and hopped in place, at least three feet away from one another. At moments like these, Gomez’s commitment to being wholesome got to be exasperating; verses like “Flaunt me in the shadows / And pull the shades down until tomorrow / And make sure that nobody follows” simply deserve more sex than Gomez gave them.

But from the start to the cute, squeaky “Hope I see you again real soon!” finish, Gomez performed with the restrained self-assuredness of a maturing star who doesn’t feel the need to shatter her old image but instead just seems confident that it’ll gradually wear away — no twerking necessary. Gomez may not know who she is yet, but she knows, and desperately wants her fans to know, who she isn’t.

Fetters is a freelance writer.