1381069364000-SNL-MILEYCYRUS02I don’t like to speculate about the mental states and inner lives of celebrities I’ve never met, but I did find odd comfort in watching Miley Cyrus on Saturday Night Live this weekend. I worry about these former child stars because I’ve written a lot about them, going all the way back to the original Mickey Mouse Club members from the ’50s, and one thing I’ve learned is it’s never easy, and it’s always at least a little damaging, to live through massive child stardom. Even moreso when you try to transition from child to adult in front of a public that prefers you innocent and docile.

The level of attention Miley’s antics have gotten lately has felt particularly dangerous to me. Only Britney Spears in her snake-wearing, Madonna-kissing heyday comes close in comparison. And Miley’s public persona is one that feels less calculated, or at least less controlled by management. That might be a good thing — it could mean she’s in control and simply expressing her crazy 20-year-old self. Or it might be a bad thing, signs of her truly losing it while we watch.

I’m slightly soothed by her Saturday Night Live appearance because it hints toward the former. The opening bit got her VMA performance out of the way so we could enjoy the rest of the program, and she showed a basic level of self-awareness in interacting with “past Miley” (which was also a clever enough bit). It felt a little soft on Miley, but I’m cool with targeting the outsize reaction to it for ridicule (making it the harbinger of the end of the world) rather than re-enacting the performance for laughs. From there, things got better. Her Scarlett Johansson impression during the very funny Fifty Shades of Grey sketch was great, and that video parody of “We Can’t Stop” featuring her as Michelle Bachmann was stellar. (Girlfriend looked good as a buttoned-up brunette, too.) I couldn’t tell if she truly got the joke in the sketch in which she played a student in “hip hop club,” which struck me as a gentle take-down of her uncomfortable obsession with co-opting hip hop culture. But still, good performance.

Her musical numbers were dead on, too. She wore clothes and allowed us to focus on her music, which, you know, wasn’t half bad. She knows how to connect with her songs, and she sung the crap out of “Wrecking Ball.” The acoustic performance of “We Can’t Stop” didn’t totally make sense (I’m a stickler for actually adding something to the meaning of a song by changing the arrangement), but she proved she can chill and sing. I found myself muttering like a grumpy old lady: I wish she would just keep her clothes on and sing like this.

But the larger point is that she can and should do exactly as she wants — so many of these kids go nuts because they don’t even know how to know what they want. Whether that’s riding a wrecking ball naked or dancing with a foam finger on stage, as long as they’re what she wants, she shouldn’t stop.