For many pop stars, headlining an acoustic musical fundraiser after over a year of not performing live may seem like a daunting task.

But if Selena Gomez was even the slightest bit nervous when she took to the stage at New York City’s Best Buy Theater on Saturday night for UNICEF’s third annual charity concert, she certainly didn’t let it show.

Gomez, who is only 20, has performed at all three of the organization’s annual charity concerts since she became UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. Benefitting programs that provide nutrition, clean water, medicine, education and more to children worldwide, the intimate event was completely sold out. And with ticket prices starting at $100, the one-night-only show raised a whopping $660,000.

“Nothing is more important than helping children in need around the globe,” Gomez stated in a press release about the event. “I’m thankful that I can use my voice to bring awareness and much-needed funds to UNICEF so they can continue their critical work. Together, with my fans, we can save lives.”

Following opening acts Nat & Alex Wolff, Noah Guthrie and Bridgit Mendler, Radio Disney personality Jake Whetter introduced Gomez to the stage. Barefoot and dressed in a simple white dress accented by the daises in her hair, Gomez looked stunning—and eager to entertain her audience.

Kicking off her set with “Round & Round,” the pop star played an array of her greatest hits, including “A Year Without Rain,” “Naturally,” and “Who Says.” Accompanied by no more than a couple acoustic guitars, a keyboard, and light percussion, Gomez went on to treat the excited crowd to stripped down versions of fan-favorite album tracks such as “Bang Bang Bang” and the Katy Perry-written “Rock God.”

While Gomez shined singing her own material, the true highlights of the evening were the various and unpredictable covers that she performed. And for a woman who recently went through a very public split with Justin Bieber, some of her song selections acted as not-so-subtly disguised jabs at her fellow superstar ex-boyfriend – including a version of “I Knew You Were Trouble” that rivaled best friend Taylor Swift’s original.

“I’ve been through a lot the last couple months. It’s been sad and cool, but interesting. This song definitely speaks to me,” Gomez confessed before diving into Justin Timberlake’s biting 2002 breakup anthem, “Cry Me A River.”

“You told me you loved me, why did you leave me alone? You tell me you need me when you call me on the phone. Boy I refuse, you must got me confused with some other girl,” Gomez sang, tweaking the lyrics to be from a female’s point of view. “Your bridges will burn and now it’s your turn to cry, cry me a river.”

Ending her interpretation of the song with a cheeky little laugh and declaration of “OK, enough of that,” Gomez’ decision to sing “Cry Me A River” was certainly a bold one—especially considering that Bieber had previously sang an acoustic version of that same exact song in concert after the pair’s breakup last fall. Rawr.

VIDEO | Courtesy of Roberto Marin

But not all of the songs that Gomez covered acted as harrowing accounts of heartbreak. Switching gears back into bubblegum mode, the singer followed “Cry Me A River” with a track made famous by that song’s muse: Britney Spears. “This is the first single of one of my favorite artists of all time,” Gomez said before breaking into her own twist on Spears’ career-launching smash, “Baby One More Time.”

Gomez (who has covered this track on tour before) introduced the seminal pop classic by talking about its inclusion in her upcoming film, Spring Breakers. An R-rated feature about four college girls who get mixed up in some “dirty work” with a skeezy drugs and arms dealer (played by James Franco) to fund their spring break, the movie looks to be Gomez’ ticket to shedding her squeaky clean image and tackling some more adult roles.

“I hope you like it,” she told me backstage after I said I was looking forward to seeing the film. “It’s very … intense,” she warned with a devilish smile.

It’s appropriate, then, that Gomez’ musical ties to Spring Breakers are in the form of Spears’ breakout hit. Like Gomez, Spears skyrocketed to fame at a young age via the Disney Channel. But with the release of “Baby One More Time,” Spears quickly morphed into a pop sensation and international sex icon. Thus, she freed herself from the confines of the “Disney star” label—a calculated image shift that Gomez hopes to emulate with the release of Spring Breakers and her upcoming new album.

Further signaling how much she’s matured, Gomez put her artistic versatility front and center during the show by taking on folk-rockers The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” Joined on stage for the song by openers Nate & Alex Wolff, Gomez offered a bouncy rendition of the track that got the audience on their feet just in time for her own dance-friendly single, “Hit The Lights.”

Yet easily the standout number of the night came in the form of Gomez’s cover of indie singer/songwriter Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” Singing with ethereal grace and tranquility, Gomez impressively demonstrated just how much her voice has developed since the release of her last album (2011’s When The Sun Goes Down). And in a move that had audience members gasping with awe, the chanteuse even pulled out a harmonica mid-song to add her own instrumental stylings to the gorgeous ballad. In that moment, it became instantly clear that Gomez has grown into a woman who’s unafraid to challenge people’s expectations of her, and into a daring musician who is excited to evolve and redefine her artistic identity.

Closing the show with her #1 dance hit, “Love You Like A Love Song,” Gomez had nearly the entire crowd (parents included) chanting the addictive chorus line, “And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat.” And even without the lavish production value of a typical pop concert, the singer’s triumphant return to the stage after spending a year away from it made it seem like she had never left in the first place.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what Selena brings in 2013. Between her edgy cinematic turn in Spring Breakers and upcoming fourth record, she has incredible opportunities ahead to add new and diverse layers to both her image and career. And if what’s coming is anywhere as pleasantly surprising as her first performance of 2013, then Selena Gomez fans can look forward to a very good year.

(Selena Gomez and I)

Originally published on PopBytes
All photos & video (except “Cry Me A River”) taken by Alex Nagorski